Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clock's Ticking: 30 MINUTES OR LESS

Despite the fact that every character in 30 Minutes or Less is either an idiot or is just acting like one, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of an Idiot Plot. No, that would require characters smart enough to pick up on the fact that the whole complicated mess of a heist is basically ready and available for any one of these participants to figure out, no extra explanation required. These are characters that are constantly loudly, and energetically explaining themselves and their motivations, continually talking away their leverage and backing into dangerous situations almost by accident. It would be funnier if the whole pace and tone of the film weren’t ever so slightly off.

The movie reunites Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer with that excellent comedy’s star Jesse Eisenberg, who here plays a pizza delivery guy who drives into a whole mess of trouble one fateful night. He delivers a pizza to two scheming slackers (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who knock him unconscious and wire a bomb vest to his chest. When he wakes up, he’s told that he has ten hours to rob a bank or the bomb will explode. If he tells anyone about his predicament, the bomb will explode. If he fails to get them a large sum of money, the bomb will explode. These two guys seem pretty stupid though, so it seems all-too-likely that this bomb is going to explode no matter what.

The reason for this convoluted scheme is even dumber and loopier than you might expect. McBride can’t wait to inherit the fortune of his lottery-winner multi-millionaire ex-military father (Fred Ward), so he sets out to hire a professional assassin (a terrifically funny Michael Peña) in order to speed up the process. Unfortunately, hitmen are expensive, so McBride and his dumber pal Swardson hatch a plan to make some sucker rob a bank for them so that they can pay the killer to kill the father. That this all makes total sense to them tells you how dumb these schemers are.

So, there you have it. Instead of merely committing murder, the two think it will be much safer to take some intermediary steps that will consist of nothing less than kidnapping, extortion, conspiracy, and all manner of frightening crimes. You see, they’re idiots. But the pizza guy seems clever enough, that is until he runs, bomb in tow, into a local school where his best friend (Aziz Ansari) works to explain the situation and get some help. After some unhelpful ideas for removing the explosive garment (“Why don’t we cut off your arms?”), the two guys decide that they may as well rob the bank. Maybe these guys aren’t much smarter.

There’s an excellent ticking-time-bomb element to the movie that the script by Michael Dilberti fails to kick into motion. It’s all very economically handled with some moderately entertaining chase elements and unrepentantly mean silliness, but, despite the weight of the bomb literally sitting on the protagonist’s chest, the propulsion just isn’t there. The plot takes plenty of sidetracks and diversions while filling up with banter that just didn’t register as too terribly funny with me. It’s only 83 minutes, but it feels longer.

The movie rockets forward at one constant, grating pace that requires the actors to constantly raise the pitch of their voices in incredulity with the speedy tempo of the dialogue. They all sound like they’re in a hurry, like they’re running on nothing but nervous energy or misplaced self-confidence, but the movie seems to be taking its own sweet time to get where it’s going. The cadence of the comedy is off, with lines landing just before or just after the sweet spot, with the tone sometimes skewing deeply dark, other times crudely light. Only Peña makes a mark and that’s because he wriggles out of the constraints of the tightly written looseness and delivers a weirdly successful mumbly lisping with a peculiarly airy quality that separates his speaking from the thudding rat-a-tat of the rest’s.

Fleischer has a great deal of confidence in the director’s chair. He brings the slick energy that, were the movie itself better, would keep things zipping along nicely. Instead the movie drags itself through its quick set-ups and pay-offs, mechanically arriving at the storytelling beats while dragging its cast along. In the end, it seems to end with a shrug, over before it really got a chance to make an impact. It’s slightly less than good and a little better than mediocre, just enough to feel all the more a disappointment.

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