To Do List, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/25/13 16:44:09

"Spending Time On The Plaza"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The idea of a comedy featuring comedienne Aubrey Plaza, the delightfully acerbic scene-stealer from "Parks & Recreation," as a overachiever high school graduate who tries to give herself a crash course in sexual behavior during the summer before she goes off to college is so instantly appealing and intriguing that the idea of it somehow not working seems virtually impossible. And yet, "The To-Do List" squanders both its premise and its star on an unwieldy and largely uninspired collection of second-rate gross-out gags, unconvincing stabs at heartfelt sentiment and largely unlikable characters. There are a few laughs to be had here and there but for the most part, most viewers will come away from it with little more than the sense that a sure thing has been blown, so to speak.

Set in 1993, the film stars Plaza as Brandy Klark, a tightly-wound teen from Boise who has channeled all of her energies and organizational abilities into excelling at school but while her efforts have helped her to become the valedictorian of her class, they have done precious little for her social life. During a graduation party, she gets drunk, briefly finds herself in a compromising position with shirtless hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) and realizes that she has absolutely no idea of what she is supposed to do in such a situation. Not wanting to remain a complete novice in such matters when she leaves for school in the fall, Brandy breaks out her trusty Trapper Keeper, makes a list of key sexual escapades running the gamut from masturbation and dry humping to losing her virginity to Rusty and vows to check off as many as she can before the summer ends.

With the help of her two best friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), her foulmouthed and somewhat trampy older sister (Rachel Bilson), her well-meaning mother (Connie Britton) and the burn-out (Bill Hader) running the pool where she is working during the summer, Brandy gets to work on achieving her goals of sexual fulfillment. While things go reasonably well from a physical standpoint, outside of the occasional embarrassment, she soon finds that her logically sound plan is filled with any number of emotional complications. She utilizes one classmate (Johnny Simmons) with a not-so-secret crush on her for a couple of items (she certainly knows how to make watching "The Firm" into an interesting experience) but he freaks out when he discovers what she is doing. Once word gets around, she has no shortage of volunteers but when she use the boy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) that Wendy has a thing for as her guide to the mysteries of dry humping, it causes a rift between them that also extends to Fiona. Even when she gets to her ultimate goal of being with Rusty, she learns the hard way that sometimes even the buffest nuts are not always what they are cracked up to be.

If we are all being honest with ourselves, I think we can all admit that when it comes to our initial tiptoes into the world of sexual experience, it is that most of our initial fumblings resulted in experiences that ranged from the scary to the downright mortifying back then but which now, with the distance of time, seem like high, if somewhat embarrassing, comedy. The best movies to tackle this subject are the ones that understand this concept and tap into it in ways that are both entertaining and recognizable. For example, I once saw a movie entitled "Whatever" that deals with a teenage girl's early sexual experiences and at one point, she makes her first attempt at oral sex and without going into too much detail, let it be said that it goes hideously wrong. In the wrong hands, this particular scene could have just been a simple and nonsensical gross-out gag (no pun intended) designed for a quick shock like the stuff in the "American Pie" movies (seriously, what guy is going to stick his junk into a pie?) but in that film, it was handled in such a way that viewers recognized the truth behind it even as they were laughing at what had happened.

My guess is that many of the events depicted in "The To-Do List" were inspired to some degree by the real-life experiences of Maggie Carey, who wrote and directed the film. Unfortunately, instead of coming across as realistic in a way that might have struck a chord with viewers while making them laugh, Carey treats the material as one giant, smutty sitcom (it even looks like a low-grade television show) in which everything is presented in the broadest and most scatological terms imaginable, presumably in an attempt to lure boys into a film whose subject matter might make them otherwise uncomfortable. As a result, the big comedy set-pieces feel exactly like the mechanical constructions that they are instead of moments borne out of actual experience and grow pretty tiresome after a while. It might have helped if some of these moments had actually been funny but too many of them are stupid ideas that have been ineptly executed for maximum inefficiency. The low point has to be a moment that explicitly recalls and inverts one of the most infamous jokes from "Caddyshack"--without going into too much detail, the concept is unlikely, the execution is unfunny and the whole thing only serves to make our theoretically intelligent heroine come across like a complete idiot for the sake of a throwaway gag

The real problem with "The To-Do List" is that it asks us to care about the misadventures of a central character who is neither particularly likable nor interesting. In recent years, films such as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Superbad" and "Easy A" have all told stories similar to the one found here but the key reason that they worked so well is because we liked the characters so much that we developed a rooting interest in them and were cheerfully willing to follow them on their odd and occasionally sordid journeys. By comparison, Brandy is just not that compelling of a character and while her clinical approach towards achieving sexual awareness is intriguing at first, it makes it increasingly difficult as things progress to care about her or her problems. That leaves a big hole at the center of the film that no amount of semen-related sight gags can possibly fill.

Actually, none of the characters are particularly interesting and most are there to serve a single narrative function--Brandy's pals need to feel betrayed, her mom needs to serve as what might be called the Eugene Levy role and her dad (Clark Gregg) appears to be on hand only to burst in on members of his family at extremely inopportune moments and look shocked and surprised--and then fade into the woodwork when they have fulfilled that purpose for the time being. (Even the normally charming Rachel Bilson is stuck playing a characters whose crude shrillness is alleviated only slightly by her tiny outfits.) The only character that actually strikes a chord is the gonzo pool manager played by Bill Hader and that is almost entirely due to the fact that he seems to have come in from an entirely different movie.

"The To-Do List" never really works but the funny thing--perhaps the only really funny thing about it--is that I found myself giving it the benefit of the doubt for longer than I normally might have in the hopes that it would eventually pull itself together. This is primarily because Aubrey Plaza is an enormous talent and even when she is being as misused as completely as she is here, she manages to rescue the film from total uselessness solely on the basis of her considerable on-screen charisma. Hiring her as the star is the smartest thing that the producers of this film did and failing to make proper use of her gifts is the dumbest. Hopefully, like the character she plays, she will learn from the mistakes of this ill-advised project and move on to something far more fulfilling and worthy of her time and energy. If not, I guess we'll always have Pawnee.

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