A gross-out teen sex comedy that relies on bodily fluids and ’90s nostalgia for the bulk of its laughs, Maggie Carey’s The To Do List feels tailor-made for Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan delivery, but never quite manages to hit its stride despite an impressive supporting cast and an inspired central concept.
The year is 1993. Brandy Klark (Plaza) is a high-school valedictorian who's always home studying while her friends are out partying. Now, as graduation looms, she starts to realize just how much fun she's been missing out on. Her grades are impressive, but how is a girl who's barely even kissed a guy supposed to handle the freedom of college life? In order to get a leg up, Brandy compiles a list of all of the erotic extracurricular activities she's missed out on and attempts to cross them off one by one. When the task proves more demanding than the previously chaste teen had anticipated, she rounds up a crew of her closest friends to help her undertake some hilariously unconventional college prep.
In a genre typically dominated by gaggles of horny young men on a mission to get laid, writer/director Carey’s female-centric concept definitely stands apart from the pack, and though in reality lead Plaza is old enough to have her master’s degree, onscreen she displays a naïve sexuality that makes suspension of disbelief a fairly easy endeavor. Indeed, Plaza’s youthful appearance and penchant for awkward humor make her the perfect candidate for the role of the book-smart teen who doesn’t have the first clue when it comes to boys, though the promising material suffers largely due to Carey’s lack of experience behind the camera. A specialist in comedy shorts, Carey arguably has an eye for a good sight gag (all emphasized here with a freeze-frame and a reminder of the sexual act achieved in case you were lost in your popcorn), but hasn’t developed the writing chops to make any of her characters more than stereotypes, or the filmmaking chops to sustain a feature-length story. As a result, The To Do List is only amusing in fits and starts, but feels just as misguided as Brandy’s mom (who gives her daughter a tube of lubricant for her sexual escapades, yet fails to include a condom at a time when the AIDS crisis was in full swing). Meanwhile, the frequent inclusion of contemporary slang into the script makes the period setting feel cheap and overly gimmicky in comparison to something like the far superior The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which, despite being more drama than comedy, still used its time period as a context rather than an excuse for a series of nudge-nudge nostalgia jokes) or the refreshingly unsentimental Turn Me On, Dammit!
For those of us who aren’t teenage girls and take little joy in the latest nostalgic trend, The To Do List’s singular saving grace is its talented cast who, despite playing one-note characters, generally manage to sustain those notes to surprising effect. Looking for all the world like a tipsy Jack Torrance the first time we see him passed out on a poolside chair, SNL alum (and Carey’s husband) Bill Hader scores most of the film’s biggest laughs as an aquaphobic pool manager who’s never far from a cold beer, and breakout Marvel Studios star Clark Gregg once again displays his everyman charm as Brandy’s uptight father, who always seems to appear at the wrong moment (the number of times he catches his daughter having intercourse will do doubt lead to years of therapy for the traumatized teen). Johnny Simmons and Scott Porter shine as a smitten geek and an acoustic-guitar Adonis, respectively, yet outside of Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as Brandy’s two best friends, the rest of the cast typically gets a single gag and disappears. Of course, it’s hard to expect much more from a high-concept comedy like The To Do List, even though the story’s personal roots suggest that it could have amounted to something more than a gag-heavy comedy that tries to downplay the importance of sexual exploration after obsessing over it for 100 minutes. Carey’s film had the potential to be a smartly comic look at the complexities of teenage sexuality, but instead she simply milks the subject for obvious laughs, making The To Do List little more than the latest in a long line of forgettable shock comedies. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan