‘The To Do List’ Review
The most interesting thing about 'The To Do List' is the fact that Aubrey Plaza isn't a very good actress. No, I shouldn't say that - she isn't what we expect. Truthfully, I don't know if there is another performer quite like her on the scene. She is sardonic and snide, but then incredibly vulnerable. Neither this nor that. She is, dare I say it, something of an individual. More strikingly, she is, at times during 'The To Do List,' among the more accurate portrayals of young womanhood in mainstream American cinema.
This may make 'The To Do List' sound like some sort of heavy film, but believe me, it isn't. It's business model is to do for 'American Pie' what 'Bridesmaids' did for 'The Hangover.' It is meant to be a lewd, but still charming exploration of first sexual encounters from a woman's point of view. "Sex is a big deal, but it's also no big deal," is the surprisingly lucid thesis at the heart of this movie. And, in line with that contradiction, 'The To Do List' is a good movie, but it's also not a good movie.
The good comes from the performances. Once we get the basic premise - that stuck-up, authoritative and highly efficient Plaza commits to methodically checking off sexual experiences prior to her freshman year of college - it's just one sketch after another. Clark Gregg as the embarrassed Dad, Connie Britton as the extremely frank Mom, Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as the best friends and Bill Hader as the Bill Murray-esque manager of the pool where all our characters work/hang out. (Indeed, a scene that references 'Caddyshack' is among the top gross-out scenes in the recent push of gross-out movies.) The set-ups are easy wins for awkward humor, with Plaza as the eternal heel. If you ever wanted to see what a sexed-up Lisa Simpson would sound like (ew, that feels weird to write), lines like, "if I'm on top I'll have a 40% higher chance of orgasm!" will scratch that unhealthy itch.
Plaza is terrific in self-deprecating moments. In the real world, Plaza is a beautiful gal, but for the movies she can stick out her teeth and wear awful glasses and look awkward. I'm hesitant to call her the next Elaine May, but she's certainly following her lead. She's incredibly sympathetic, but manages to only be slightly appealing. It's a neat trick - one that male comics get to pull all the time.
Unfortunately, she really can't handle the dramatic stuff. Her voice is flat and her face is a stone. I know that some 17-year-olds really do talk and act this way, but they are insufferable, too. Besides, this a movie, not a Frederick Wiseman documentary. When Plaza is doing a scene with an actress like Alia Shawkat, it's a little painful.
By and large, though, it doesn't matter much. This is a movie where we're expected to laugh at painful, icky sex acts and as Plaza goes further round the bases the laughs build. There are a lot of funny scenarios here - not too many genuinely clever ones - but the team knows how to work a bit for a big laugh.
'The To Do List' is set in 1993 because 90s nostalgia is a big thing. Other than a few Hillary Clinton gags and the line "I sent you an electronic mail," it doesn't fit into the film at all. But, the persistent reminder for a cheap laugh gets annoying. Back in the 90s we had a great youth film set in the 70s called 'Dazed and Confused.' That movie integrated the setting at a molecular level. This is just needle-drops and hair jokes.
'The To Do List' gets better as it continues. Maybe it takes a while to get on its very low budget, kinda-low stakes wavelength. But, to the characters it isn't low stakes. And, frankly, we've seen so many movies about horny guys "losin' it," that it is high time we've seen how girls grow into women in a society that only accept them as virgins or whores. And, sadly, that's not just 1993, that's today.
‘The To Do List' opens in select theaters on July 26.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.