By Will Ashton
Considering how rarely I watch the scenes in Parks and Recreation without Ron Swanson, it took until Safety Not Guaranteed for me to realize how comically talented Aubrey Plaza is.
While there were things like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that could have at least given me a clue, it always felt, to me, that Plaza was just a one-note actress. She never really struck me as an actress, but rather one of those celebrities that literally just played themselves in everything.
That was, until I saw Safety Not Guaranteed last summer. Not only did that movie show me that Plaza had leading lady potential, but it opened me up the comedic, and dramatic, abilities of its star. Needless to say, I’m now on the Plaza bandwagon.
So, with this, I was rather looking forward to what her next lead adventure would bring with The To Do List. It was a little more edgy and raunchy than anything she has really done before. Which, I believe, is supposed to be the point. But, was Safety Not Guaranteed just a fluke, or does this girl truly got what it takes to make it in the comedy world?
Straight-laced valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) has never been one to step very far out of her comfort zone. But, after meeting the man of her dreams, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), and getting almost intimate with him, she decides that it is time to figure out what she’s been missing. So, before she begins college, she decides to make a list of all the sexual acts she has to do before she can enter her freshman year. Ending the list is to have sex with Rusty, who, as it turns out, is a fellow lifeguard at a pool that she works at during the summer.
The To Do List, in many ways, reminded me of the first American Pie movie. The movie takes what should be completely tired and done-before premise and actually makes it seem kind of fresh again. Much like the original American Pie movie, there is sex-related gross out humor and awkward humor aplenty in The To Do List. But, what makes both films work, if mildly, were their abilities to bring a level of sincerity through their characters.
Hollywood has a tendency of forgetting that gross out humor, when it works, is not about what happens to the character. It’s about who it happens to. Any sixth grader can write a gross out joke. Quite frankly, that’s the main reason why I tend not to enjoy it. But, what makes movies like There’s Something About Mary and their gross out humor memorable are how they are able to build memorable characters around their silliness. It balances it out, and it provides the audience with a reaction that we care about. Which makes the joke work. This is what helps separate The To Do List from the majority of gross out farces that have come out in the past couple years.
While not every joke is a slam-dunk, the movie has enough well rounded and likeable characters in it that we can be engaged and entertained by the awkward and over-the-top sexual silliness that happens around them. It’s the reason that American Pie worked in the first place, and was something that was lost quickly in the films to follow.
The To Do List is never outrageously funny, but it is constantly amusing. What really makes it work is the great cast that the movie was able to get. In particular, Plaza works her magic once again. Her dry delivery and mannerisms constantly sell the movie’s outlandish material. But other cast members like Bill Hader (married to writer/director Maggie Carey in real-life) also help bring in comedy when they are on screen.
Also proving some solid, and unexpected, comedic chops are Clark Gregg as Plaza’s overbearing father and even Rachel Bilson as Brandy’s older sister, who appears to have an underused talent for comedy. Donald Glover pops up in the movie too, and is funny as ever. But, sadly, the movie makes little use of his comedic talents. Also, props for putting Derrick Comedy in the film.
Also, this movie takes place in the ‘90s. The only reason that I know this is because they reminded me in EVERY SINGLE SCENE. I mean, seriously. We get it; you are in the ‘90s. But the movie feels the need to stop itself every two minutes to remind the audience about what time period it is in. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes it’s funny, but a majority of the time, it’s rather annoying.
As these types of comedies do, at times, the movie gets too caught up in trying to be silly, gross or outrageous, sometimes, all three. It’s because of this that the movie suffers from some of the same problems other comedies like Eurotrip or any other sex-comedy throughout the years have had. It goes too broad and too over-the-top for its own good. While its target audience may enjoy it at times, for regular audience members, it gets a little tiresome.
Nevertheless, Carey’s script has a certain level of frankness and cleverness to itself that it can save itself from going too broad. There’s a level of acuteness and honesty in the film’s writing that is not usually found in these types of comedies. As a result, the movie is able to work more than it doesn’t.
For some reason, it wasn’t until Bridesmaids came out in 2011 that Hollywood realized that women are funny too. I mean, c’mon guys, The Women came out in 1939. But, since then, they have thankfully begun incorporating more women-driven comedies into their line-up. After some failed attempts like For a Good Time Call, Pitch Perfect and The Heat, however, they finally got one that actually hits more than it misses. In my review for The Heat, I talked about how their should be more female-centered comedies that are written and directed by women instead of men, and this film seems to have proven me right.
In her directorial debut, Carey didn’t quite make a home run, but she has been able to bring in some viewpoints from the opposite gender that having been severely lacking in these types of comedies. I hope she. and other female directors like Lena Dunham, continue to branch out and make their stamps in Hollywood. Hollywood, stop making men the directors of these types of comedies and let more women behind the camera.
The To Do List isn’t going to go down as one of the best comedies of the year. But it sure is better than most comedies that we have gotten so far this year. It’s not gut-bustlingly funny, but it is endlessly amusing, with a great cast and a pretty clever script. As we are finally starting to get more female-driven comedies in Hollywood these days, I’m glad to see one that’s actually pretty good. I’m hoping this continues, because the ladies deserve to have as many funny comedies as the guys.