Friday, July 26, 2013

In Review: The To Do List

It’s the summer of 1993 in Boise, Idaho and Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) has just graduated, valedictorian, mind you, from high school.  Brandy is an intense achiever, and when she spots heartthrob Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) – voted “best body” in the yearbook – she puts her mind to the next thing she wants to achieve.

After an embarrassing encounter with Rusty at a party, Brandy, with the help of her more experienced friends, makes a check-list of all the sex-related things she wants to do by the end of summer, before she sets off for college.

As far as raunchy sex comedies go, “The To Do List” follows in the path of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Superbad.”  It certainly doesn’t skimp on the jokes – it’s filled to the brim with them – and it doesn’t shy from the scatological.  There’s gross-out humor aplenty.  But where “Superbad” (a film with a similar setting and many of the same cast members) had a story of friendship nestled in its soft underbelly, “The To Do List” remains flinty, only hinting at deeper themes.

That’s largely because the comedy of “The To Do List” can be a double-edged sword, with jokes and actions perhaps undercutting real character emotions.  Brandy is decidedly set on achieving her list, but ultimately, it seems only so that she can say she did.  For her, sexual encounters are never about loving, caring for, or even actually liking the other person, they’re always about achieving a goal.

Packed with a robust supporting cast, “The To Do List” does a good job of building scenes around genuinely unique characters.  Unlike this summer’s “The Heat,” whose characters felt so ridiculous and unimaginably incompetent, the supporting players here feel like they could really exist within this comedic world.  Even Rachel Bilson, as Brandy’s older sister Amber, who might be the most over-the-top, still seems rooted in this reality, and a scene of her physically fighting with Brandy is well-played against a scene of Cameron (Johnny Simmons) excitedly hugging Duffy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) after a phone call.

Screenwriter and director Maggie Carey wrote the script with Aubrey Plaza in mind, instructing her to do her version of Tracy Flick from Alexander Payne’s “Election,” and Plaza summons a prickly, defiant persona – one which supervisor Willy (Bill Hader) suggests has kept people at a distance.  And though there are opportunities for Brandy to change and lighten up, especially with Cameron, her lab partner with a bad case of puppy love, we never see that she’s changed in a big way.

There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with playing sex for laughs – here, 90s-era fashion and technologies are certainly played that way – but we never get the sense that Brandy is getting any sort of authentic enjoyment out of her physical encounters.  Because she’s never had any romantic experiences before, her flings seem less like acts of feminist liberation than of naïveté.  Brandy might look to the smiling photo of Hillary Clinton on her desk for feminist inspiration, but certainly Hillary would have a few things to say about casual sexual escapades.  Or at least she will in 1998.

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