It's tough to really stand out these days if you're a teen sex comedy. Surprising audiences is more difficult than it used to be thanks to the legacy of other movies in this genre; a lot of them try to gross you out in increasingly ridiculous ways, but after the antics of Jim, Stifler, and the gang in the American Pie films (or that horrifying eclair scene in Van Wilder), a small comedy like The To Do List seems, well, sort of lame in comparison. It's as vulgar as you'd expect from a movie with the central premise of a girl crossing sexual moves off a list, and it has a solid cast and a few good jokes, but the film never takes any memorable chances. Calling The To Do List "a forgettable, one-note romantic comedy" seems harsh and it undervalues the talents of everyone involved, but, sadly, it's an accurate description of the film.
The To Do List
Writer/Director: Maggie Carey
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Scott Porter, Bill Hader
Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) has her life completely planned out. She's the daughter of a repressed father (Clark Gregg) and a secretly carefree mother (Connie Britton), and Brandy is a straight-A student who makes detailed lists of all her future plans. She's also sexually inexperienced, much to the chagrin of her two best friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steel) who take her to her first kegger after graduation in an effort to loosen her up. After an embarrassing drunken encounter with hunky college guy Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) in which he mistakes Brandy for another girl, she and her friends decide that if Brandy is going to lose her virginity to Rusty, she'll have to gain some sexual experience points first, so she creates a "to do list" of practically every sexual experience you can think of.
Much of the film takes place at the local pool where Brandy spends the summer working as a lifeguard and hanging out with a litany of ridiculous characters. Bill Hader plays her deadbeat boss and gives probably the funniest performance of the movie as he hazes Brandy and eyes her sister (Rachel Bilson). Rusty conveniently works at the pool too, along with Brandy's friendzoned lab partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons) and the flat-top wearing Adam, played by a wildly under-utilized Donald Glover. He has about ten lines and his character is so minor I had to look up his name on IMDb. There are some shenanigans, but they're mostly cliches (poop in the pool, a rivalry with the cross-town country club, etc).
The movie is set in 1993 in Boise, Idaho, and Carey milks every joke she can out of the 90s setting*. A Kenny G reference and a mention of "Home Improvement" got big laughs in my screening, but the way the script plays every piece of period humor as a big laugh didn't quite work for me; instead of having the confidence to place visual gags in the background and going for more subtle humor, The To Do List seems to be shouting, "LOOK AT THIS! REMEMBER THIS? SHE HAS TO LOOK UP THESE SEXUAL TERMS IN THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BECAUSE THE INTERNET WASN'T A THING YET! HAHAHA!" Calm down. We get it. Calling so much attention to these moments comes off as desperate instead of assured, and - more than almost any other genre - when comedies get desperate, the results can be cringe-inducing.
Thankfully, the strong cast helps to make the film's apparent desperation easier to swallow. Those who thought Plaza's lead character in the terrific Safety Not Guaranteed wasn't different enough from April Ludgate, her sardonic government employee on "Parks and Recreation," should be pleased with her work here. As Brandy Klark, she's a straight-laced, wide-eyed teen who doesn't rely on sarcasm as her primary method of communication. There's a genuine curiosity and innocence to this character, and though her arc isn't the most original thing you'll see, Plaza commits to the role and does a convincing job. There are a ton of small appearances by people you'll recognize, from Andy Samberg to Adam Pally to Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but it seems as if they were only able to shoot for a day or two (and some of them, an hour or two).
Unfortunately, the cast can only do so much. The To Do List is not a bad movie by any means, but like so many other well-intended efforts, it just never lives up to the potential of its premise. I wanted to love it because I have a lot of affection for the cast, but a lackluster screenplay and a lack of iconic moments result in a comedy's worst nightmare: it's a forgettable movie. At least if it had been a spectacular failure, we'd remember it; I mean this in the nicest way possible, but about halfway through I was hoping it would take a turn and end up being downright terrible for that very reason. But frustratingly, The To Do List travels right down the middle of the road like a dusty mid-90s station wagon you'd pass on a long road trip. I'd cross it off my list of things to see, but I've already forgotten about it. Until next time...
*The opening credits sequence is fantastic. It's just a shame the rest of the movie went downhill from there.