Title: The To-Do List
Director: Maggie Carey
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Scott Porter, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Donald Glover, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sarah Steele, Clark Gregg, Connie Britton, Andy Samberg, Jack McBrayer
With scene-stealing turns in movies like “Funny People” and a solid role in the small screen ensemble “Parks and Recreation,” Aubrey Plaza has exhibited no short supply of crack comedic timing. The looming question, then, was whether she could translate that gift into the lead role in a film. The answer, in the form of last summer’s quirky, winning “Safety Not Guaranteed,” was a resounding yes. And that’s part of the reason the lackluster “The To Do List,” her second foray into leading lady-hood, lands with such a disappointing thud.
Written and directed by Maggie Carey (the real-life wife of co-star Bill Hader), this 1990s-set tale means to put a gender spin on the sex comedy formula, telling the coming-of-age (nudge, nudge) story of a brainiac virginal girl who gets it in her mind to make some mad, make-up progress on her sexual bucket list during the summer between her high school graduation and college matriculation. The problem is, nothing about this potentially rich conceit is handled in an emotionally honest or resonant manner, and the yawning, indifferently paced result has none of the sharp wit of something like the similarly themed “For a Good Time, Call…,” making for an at times painfully interminable viewing experience that variously wastes and works at cross purposes with the charms of its lead actress.
Plaza stars as Brandy Clark, a Boise, Idaho valedictorian and the family “good girl” in comparison to her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson). After an abortive, mistaken quasi-hook-up with the hunky Rusty (Scott Porter), Brandy submits to the advice of her friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), and decides to attack her sexual inexperience as if cramming for an exam. Working opposite Rusty, and under the supervision of loafing manager Willie (Hader), as a lifeguard at the local public pool, Brandy spends her summer putting various notches in her proverbial belt, much to the consternation of her long-suffering friend, Cameron (Johnny Simmons, aptly channeling puppy-dog devotion), who views Brandy’s libidinal awakening as a chance to finally get out of the friend zone.
Carey scores a few zingers here and there, at the expense of “innovations” like call-waiting and Snack Wells, but there’s truly nothing real here; her movie lurches to and fro as if written as a collection of loose, thematically grouped sketch comedy scenes. “For a Good Time, Call…” found and exploited for laughs both the differences and similarities in male-female sexual attraction and gratification, and took seriously its female characters’ sexuality. Carey nominally puts Brandy in charge (the movie is her “quest”), but embraces narrative contrivance and wind-sock characterizations instead of rooting down into substantive feeling. Consistently, characters don’t behave in rational ways, which makes the story feel arbitrary. The closest Carey comes to something interesting and honest is in Brandy and Amber’s sexually enlightened mother (a wonderful Connie Britton), but even here she eventually undercuts herself.
When not indulging in digressive, increasingly uncomfortable and, more important, unfunny humiliations of its lead character (eating feces from a pool, losing her bathing suit top) that are irrelevant to the movie’s putative core exploration, “The To Do List” is marked by lazy plotting and bailed out repeatedly by look-at-me casting, as with Andy Samberg and Jack McBrayer. (The former plays the lead singer of a touring band who comes through town, while the latter pops up in one scene, as the manager of a swanky private pool that Carey randomly introduces as a “rival” late in the movie, after spending no time whatsoever developing it.) And even grading on the curve of a small budget, the film’s production design feels cheap, haphazard and inattentive, propped up by soundtrack choices (hi there, Spin Doctors and Naughty by Nature) meant to evoke a certain breezy nostalgia.
Plaza, meanwhile, pushing 30, exhibits no small difficulty in channeling teenage angst and wound-up hormonal discovery, but not just because of her maturity. Rather, it’s because of Carey’s thinly imagined script, which doesn’t give her a solid enough character. If “The To Do List” was her chance to show a sunnier, looser side than the deadpan style for which she’s known, she fails, sadly. It’s not just on Plaza, though. This undisciplined affair simply doesn’t deliver on its concept. Cross it off your own late summer to-do list.
Written by: Brent Simon