Sunday, July 28, 2013

Checked Off: THE TO DO LIST

I appreciate the effort to tell a casually randy teen comedy from the perspective of a young woman, make the film explicitly about labels and expectations that go along with being a woman, and end with the girl taking control of her body and coming out on top. I would’ve appreciated all that a whole lot more if Maggie Carey’s The To Do List managed to be funny while it was at it. Instead of another Bridesmaids, Easy A, or The Heat, the kind of funny female-driven comedy that leads for a round of patronizing women-can-be-funny-too surprise from certain predictable corners of the media landscape, this underachieving movie has a killer (and sadly underrepresented) hook in its point of view without the goods to back it up. It’s not an occasion to say, “women can star in a comedy, too,” but rather “women can star in a bad comedy, too.”

The movie’s essentially a loose collection of thin bits about a high school valedictorian (Aubrey Plaza) looking to spend her summer before college shaking her good girl image. Being a bookish, studious, conscientious young lady, she makes a checklist of acts to do in just a few months. Her attempts, cringingly awkward and gross, fall between gossip sessions with friends and shifts at the community pool. The success of the film hinges upon how funny a viewer finds these episodic sketches, which are light and forgettable, trending towards gross-out gags that are either too much or not enough. (One in particular, a riff on a similar gag in Caddyshack, is disastrously gross.) At most, I felt a desire to laugh without ever actually laughing. Nothing goes wrong enough to complain, but nothing goes right enough to entertain. It's a movie of good intentions and weak execution. It’s set in 1993, for example, but that idea never goes further than lots of great 90’s hits on the soundtrack and the wardrobe department dressing everyone in the most unflattering fashions of the era.

Similarly, the cast is underutilized. Plaza has a sardonic low-key approach that's an awkward fit with the anxiety and naivety in her character as written. She's a real talent - good on Parks & Rec and with great voice work in Monsters University and the English dub of From Up On Poppy Hill - but this movie doesn't play to her strengths. She's better than the material. That goes for the supporting cast around her as well. They’re all appealing performers – Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as the best friends, Rachel Bilson, as the vapid older sister, Connie Britton as the open-minded mom, Clark Gregg as the uptight dad, Bill Hader as the slacker pool manager – but even they don’t have more than a small moment or two to shine. As the guys the lead crushes on or who have crushes on her, Scott Porter and Johnny Simmons are appealing and underwritten, which is partly a good joke on how these roles are typically portrayed when a young man's in the lead and those roles are filled by young women. One’s a hot but dull blonde; the other’s a cute brunette who's taken for granted, but all around better for her. Sound familiar?

While watching the film, I intellectualized the novelty (importance, even) of the point of view and some of it was technically funny, but I just wasn’t entertained. Even the best moment would be the weakest in a better comedy. It's not bad, just, despite its raunch and purposeful button-pushing, weirdly sloppy and mild. A tepid milestone, it’s a film that says girls deserve crummy teen sex comedies too. True, but that doesn’t mean the results are any worthier than crummy teen sex comedies from a guy’s point of view.

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