EXPECTATIONS: I hope writer/director Maggie Carey knows more about filmmaking than hyphen placement. If not, The To-Do List (yes, I'm correcting the error throughout the review) is fucked.
REALITY: There are moments when The To-Do List, working from a template established by a million horny predecessors, threatens to fall headfirst into formula tropes: the head-slappingly stupid misunderstandings that separate romcom protags before they finally talk to each other in the third act the way they should have the whole time; the comer-of-age who realizes his/her ideal mate was his/her geeky best friend; the teen sex comedy's full embrace of the virgin/whore dichotomy, etc. But by the time the final credits rolled, nearly every one of those tropes was avoided or cleverly subverted.
Nothing suggestive here.
In that sense, The To-Do List should be required viewing for those of us raised on a steady diet of films (mostly from the '80s) about teenagers trying to get laid. This is a Dear John (Hughes) letter written on behalf of everyone who found Duckie creepy and misanthropic. It's also the biggest retooling of its genre since American Pie, which, to be fair, didn't change all that much besides reintroducing semi-three-dimensional women.
For that, I'm grateful. If The To-Do List were a little bit funnier, it would be a classic. As it stands, it's an amusing curiosity. Amusing, because it finds its moral center in the most unlikely protagonist, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), a Type A antisocial mathletic virgin who can't stop correcting everyone around her. Almost immediately after her high school graduation, her older sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson), and her best friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), challenge her to "bone up" on her sexual experience before she departs for her freshman year of college.
Ever the task-oriented overachiever, Brandy lists all the sex acts her sister mentions and sets out to try each of them, on her way to a grand finale: losing her virginity to a guitar-playing hunk, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). And because this film needs a way to reference Caddyshack and define itself in opposition to Adventureland, Brandy has a summer job at the local pool, where she works alongside Rusty; Cameron (Johnny Simmons), her lovestruck nice-guy friend; burnout pool manager Willy (Bill Hader); and Donald Glover (Donald Glover). Oh, and it's the Summer of 1993.
That last detail seems like an unimportant excuse for period-appropriate hindsight jokes and speculation as to the film's autobiographical content, but it's vital to the premise. In the age of Internet porn, and with Anthony Weiner around to educate the youngsters, is anything surrounding sex mysterious anymore? By necessity, this film would have to be set in 1993, or else Brandy would have to be someone like my mother, a 62-year-old who uses the Internet for Yahoo! Mail and gin rummy and who, after binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, asked me about squirting. In this light, I think we can all agree that setting the movie in 1993 was the correct choice.
Here's this week's Spot the Ball competition.As Brandy, whose mercenary approach to sex is atypical among protagonists of these movies, male or female, Plaza finds the notes that allow us to spend two hours in her company without growing restless -- quite a feat, considering the similarly long Apatow movies always drag to the finish. Key to The To-Do List's success, I think, is its refusal to indulge in the saccharine, a tendency that's long plagued these comedies, especially since American Pie imported standard-issue romcom conflicts and covertly puritanical attitudes toward premarital sex in its bid for a female audience. The To-Do List is more nuanced: Brandy's Mom (Connie Britton) is Jim's Dad with a fraction of the awkwardness, and the moral, if it can be called a moral, is the cinematic equivalent of Sherman's March, this time on Shermer, IL. (If you get that joke, you're in this film's target audience.)
Unfortunately, The To-Do List is only fitfully funny. Its references to pagers, electronic mail and random 1990s ephemera generally fall flat, though Andy Samberg provides a note-perfect parody of Nirvana-era rock. When the jokes do work, once every few minutes, Carey displays a puzzling knack for cutting them short before they climax. The whole film's consistently amusing, thanks to performances by gifted comic actors, but The To-Do List lacks the memorable jokes of the films it works so hard to subvert. (On the plus side, there's a two-hour setup for an "anal sex" punchline that doesn't exist.)
It would be silly of me to try and predict The To-Do List's influence on the future of cinema. If box office predictions are correct, this film will be a footnote in a chapter on teen sex comedies. But I hope it's remembered as something more. I hope it brings in more female writer-directors who can keep this fresh perspective on the genre spinning. I hope it proves that Plaza, who brings an almost sociopathic edge to her characters in this and Parks and Recreation, can continue carrying movies. I hope it proves that comedies don't need soul-searching in the third act to keep women's interest. Above all, I hope it introduces a second age of sex comedies that find their humor in the trenches, far below the bog-me-down ruminating that extended This Is 40 to a torturous 137 minutes.
As much as I enjoy all the movies Carey targets here, The To-Do List serves as a welcome rebuke not only to the kind of sentimentality that drains so many mainstream comedies of their fun, but also to the objectification that makes the rest of them sorta creepy.
|Fuck You, John Hughes||10/10|
MINORITY REPORT: Yes, but does The To-Do List have nearly as many engorged male appendages as The Wolverine? Seriously, does it? I need to know... for science. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison
TOTAL WRECK - crazy-eyed hound is covered in cobwebs, has a vespiary on back, graffiti on side and savage thirst for boat fuel. Frankly, I'm in over my head. He's in room 115 at Motel 6, yours free. 555-2851
Yes, it's the perfect form for surviving a car crash. But it's also the perfect form for so much more, like surviving the trauma of reading any news headline in 2016.
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