This list is missing the point.
If The To Do List took even half of what made the original American Pie trilogy great it would be an extremely funny, memorable film. Just by examining the film’s plot — a female’s perspective on sex and the teenage obsession of it — is wholly sustainable and worthy of a film that does its perspective justice. However, The To Do List sneaks by with what we pretty much expected; crude jokes, awkward instances, insane sight gags, and commentary on teenage sexual urgency that is already well-know and barely worthy of a “Cliff Notes” pamphlet.
The film stars the lovable and underrated Aubrey Plaza, who’s performance in last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed I regard as one of the most sincerest performances of 2012. She is a confident, but very genuine screen-presence, always combining the characteristics and personality of a real human being rather than simply replicating a vision in a screenwriter’s head. She is a brilliant character-actor certainly destined for greatness in the coming years; what is she doing playing with this gang of dirty-minded buffoons?
She plays Brandi Klark, an overachieving, enormously smart young woman who is fresh out of high school, but still, yes, a virgin. Attending a rowdy party thanks to her two dopey friends, she meets and falls head-over-hells in lust with Rusty (Scott Porter), the archetypal jock who has the exterior of a model and the interior of a kindergartner. A woman like Brandi would not realistically falls madly for this kind of guy, let alone enough to make her write an entire to do list of sexual favors she plans to perform before college rolls around. Some of the things found on the list are too vulgar to describe here; let’s just say there are a lot of jobs, a lot of genial-sounding favors, and it all leads up to sex with Rusty.
The problem with The To Do List is the film feels more like a compilation of awkward situations strung together by the vaguest of plot lines. American Pie was certainly a raunchfest, but the presence of a plot was replaced by a strong cast of actors and a list of characters that were nice enough to like. The issue with Brandi as a protagonist is, after the creation of this list, she becomes the kind of woman you know for a fact she’d never become. She becomes a dishonest, conniving, unfaithful tramp seeking immediate gratification and simply doesn’t care about personal integrity or how her peers view her. This is distractingly unrealistic, regardless of how naive Brandi may be in terms of street-smarts.
Even when she gets a job at a local waterpark as a lifeguard — mentored by the browbeating but soft-guy Willy (Bill Hader) – scenes become rather perfunctory and stale with shock value. (especially considering I was spoiled by the true unexpectedness and lovely human qualities that were featured in The Way, Way Back, which was also largely set a waterpark. But to be fair, the cast is put to great use, and I rarely tire from seeing Plaza and Hader on screen at the same time. The To Do List, at least possesses the star-power and charisma to be remembered as a major-minor comedy piece that brings its cast potential to at least adequate heights.
However, I must again iterate how tiring the scenes where Brandi is paying her sexual dues get. The film doesn’t merely become cringe-worthy but often desperate during these scenes, generating not laughter but winces. The rule of thumb for shock value is it should be funny not because it is happening but because it is happening to characters who are either trying to do something challenging without any flaws or to characters we like enough not to get humiliated. The taste in my mouth (no pun intended, I swear) after many of these scenes was rather bitter and often flat.
The To Do List has a lot to learn in terms of invoking sentimentality into comedy, providing a female’s viewpoint into the complex world of teenage hormones, and with humor and shock-value in general. These points are undeniable. However, the cast is charismatic enough, the references to nineties pop culture (when the film was set) is a pleasant change of pace from comedies fueled by exhausting and monotonous contemporary soundtracks and set-pieces, and, once more, I can’t stress how Aubrey Plaza is a treasure in independent cinema. The film may not work entirely, but it manages to bring a smile and a few laughs out of even the most hardened viewer. In a year where big-budget comedies have fallen flat on their face and invaluable star-power has seemed to have gone nowhere, this is a real, if barely adequate achievement.
Reviewed by Steve Pulaski
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