Sometimes a cast of today’s brightest comedic talents can’t carry a film on its own. Such is the case with The To Do List, which unfortunately sacrifices an intriguing, edgy premise for a safe, toothless final product. Writer-director Maggie Carey drew from her own experiences for The To Do List, her feature film debut. Carey has a solid grasp on the particular era in which the film is set (it is very ’90s), but the film does not add up to anything particularly original. Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) stars as Brandy Klark, a tightly-wound, virginal valedictorian who takes her rigid work ethic and applies it to a checklist of sexual experiences to achieve before entering college. A guitar-playing college boy named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) catches Brandy’s eye at a party and she makes it her new goal to have sex with him. She becomes a lifeguard at a public pool where he works, where she also meets Willy (Bill Hader), the grungy, free-loading owner of the pool.
The To Do List derives much of its comedy from its eccentric characters like Willy and Brandy’s friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele). Despite the proven talent of some of these actors, their characters are simply too flat for them to really excel beyond simple joke-telling. There is a montage during Brandy’s first few days at the pool of her co-workers playing practical jokes on her, but the jokes rely too heavily on Plaza, Hader and others to elevate them beyond simple adolescent humor. Brandy’s home life is handled a little better, though the film clearly isn’t that concerned with them. Brandy’s older sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson), is a sexually-experienced yet stupid young woman who provides a nice contrast to Brandy but the film doesn’t try to make her much of anything besides a mean girl. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg play Brandy’s parents as an odd couple, and it’s refreshing to see them play comedic roles but they end up being tertiary characters by the film’s end. Regardless, the writing and the actors do seem to accurately capture the ’90s time period, complete with references to VHS tapes, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Clinton/Gore, Home Improvement and a crazy new thing called electronic mail. It becomes interesting how different times were just two decades ago. It’s unfortunate that even with these references, the film never gets at the heart of what it’s like to be a sheltered teenager in the early ’90s.
There has been a lot of buzz lately about female-centric comedies like Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect and The Heat proving to be successful both critically and financially, and I think The To Do List could have been among that trifecta with a stronger script. While stars like Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Rebel Wilson excelled in their respective films, I don’t think it was all on them as performers. The writing had to be there to highlight the strengths of the particular actor. Plaza is a very talented young comedic actress who has soared in previous roles (2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed), but the writing in The To Do List doesn’t allow her to have a consistent yet three-dimensional character as she fluctuates between butt-of-the-joke and straight-woman. More often than not, the characters berate her regardless of what she does and it becomes difficult to laugh at the jokes. The film has a surprising number of sexist jokes towards women despite its central conceit and the gender of its writer/director.
After I left the theater I was surprised by how quickly the film left my mind. Though I always enjoy Plaza and despite the fact that I laughed at numerous points in the film, I don’t think it particularly adds up to anything. I know it’s not a message movie and it shouldn’t be treated as such, but summer comedies like this should at least give the audience member a feeling of being thoroughly entertained. The final product ends up feeling like a series of Saturday Night Live sketches (even Andy Samberg shows up late in the film as a stereotypical lead singer of a grunge band) with Plaza doing her best to hold it all together as the host. I would neither recommend nor warn against seeing the film, which some would consider the worst film experience of all.
MVP: Aubrey Plaza
Photo: CBS Films