Mark Reviews Movies

The To Do List


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Maggie Carey

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Rachel Bilson, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Andy Samberg

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 7/26/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 25, 2013

There must be a reason that The To Do List is set during the early 1990s beyond nostalgia and the temptation to throw in as many references to popular culture of the time as possible (There are plenty here). The most obvious likely reason is that writer/director Maggie Carey is attempting an act of comparison. Here is a movie that has the feeling of a male-oriented sex comedy of the '80s, the humor centering on bodily fluids of a gross-out comedy of the late '90s, and a central character who is a young woman. The question, it seems, is whether or not society has come to a point where a female character can have the same sexual escapades that her male counterparts in similar fare have had and continue to have without the audience so much as batting an eye.

The fact that The To Do List (with its missing hyphen) feels a bit daring now—two decades after the year in which it's set—is perhaps the most telling answer. We don't really get to see mainstream comedies of this nature, where a young woman has all the fun (and inevitable embarrassment) while leaving the men a little confused, feeling a tad used, and, in one case, a sobbing wreck. It's at least some evidence that the old double standard about sex in relationship to the sex of the person having the sex is still at play.

The movie doesn't condemn her because she decides to make and act upon a list of sexual activities that she needs to do before heading to college. The only characters who are critical of her are the insecure boy who has a crush on her and her protective and equally insecure father. Her friends cheer her decision (as long as she stays away from their guys), and the guys are too eager about the prospect of helping her fulfill the items on her list to even give a second thought to gender politics.

There's actually some legitimate tension watching the movie unfold, wondering if Carey will follow through with the movie's philosophy of empowerment or if the movie and the lead character will take a safer route. At a key moments when the movie and the protagonist could settle, they continue to defy social conventions, even while the screenplay begins to conform to ones of formula.

The story begins with Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), the valedictorian of her high school, being jeered off the stage near the beginning of her graduation speech. She is not especially popular, and she doesn't care (The speech—what we hear of it—is pretty brash). She has two close friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), and even they think her personality can be too abrasive for her own good. Her former study partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons) has a crush on her but won't say anything because he's afraid of how she might react. Her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) mocks her, but her parents (Clark Gregg and Connie Britton) think she's an ideal daughter.

Everything changes when her friends take her to a post-graduation party where the alcohol flows. Brandy notices Rusty (Scott Porter), a guitar-playing college guy with long, blonde hair and a chiseled physique. She's instantly smitten with him and even comes close to losing her virginity to him when he mistakes her—trying to sleep off her drunkenness—for someone else who's trying to get him in bed. After realizing his mistake, Rusty unceremoniously leaves Brandy alone with her misery.

Embarrassed but with a newly awakened libido, Brandy decides the best chance she has of sleeping with Rusty, whom she is working with as a lifeguard at a public pool run by a manager who can't swim named Willy (Bill Hader), is to gain some sexual experience. She tosses out her to-do list for preparing for college and starts a new one with as many sex acts as she can imagine (She consults a dictionary and an encyclopedia to determine the meaning of unfamiliar terms; they are, in an amusingly predictable fashion, no help).

What follows is a series of increasingly embarrassing episodes—and far less successful misadventures of the non-sexual variety—as Brandy moves down the list. Her exploits begin with Cameron, who winds up believing that she actually likes him and wants to date him. This could be perceived as cruel, of course, but Brandy is simply oblivious to his affections, believing that Cameron is just in it for the fun (He's also exceedingly pathetic, which pushes his character from sympathy to pity quite quickly). After going out with him a couple times, we start to think the screenplay might be setting us up for Brandy's monogamous experimentation and a cheap revelation in which she realizes that what she really wanted has been in front of her all the while. Carey is smarter than that, with a less romanticized point to make.

The movie's gags—involving Brandy using butter from a movie theater as lubricant, getting rug burns, and being forced to talk with her mouth full (not to mention at least three people walking in at inopportune moments)—are of the hit-and-miss variety, though a good number of them are quite funny. As subversive as the The To Do List is, though, it's still ultimately familiar and insubstantial fare.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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