Sunday, January 5, 2014

The To Do List

(R, CBS Films, 104 mins., theatrical release date: July 26, 2013)

Brandy Klark is the keynote speaker for the graduating class of 1993 at Merriwether High in Boise, Idaho. Captain of the Mathletes, record-holder of the establishment's highest GPA and able to balance both the school newsletter and her own feminist zine ("Womyn"), Brandy boasts an intellectual sense of accomplishment, but, as her peers are quick to point out, she is flunking out in terms of carnal knowledge. To put it bluntly, she's a virgin! That almost changes when she reluctantly attends a keg party where she gets the hots for blonde hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who's jamming an acoustic Def Leppard cover to a flock of hotties. A mistaken booty call is picked up by the inebriated Brandy, but she nervously outs herself as "valedictorian" and Rusty flees. What's a hormonally late-blooming girl to do?

Although originally titled "The Hand Job," The To Do List doesn't stop at that particular gesture, as Brandy outlines her new sex education curriculum by writing an inventory of every trick she can find. But her obliviousness to the rules of motorboating, teabagging ("Must be British") and rim jobs (it's not in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, so she makes a mental note to ask the librarian) is the most subtle reminder of the pre-Google period of pornographic sophistication. Self-biographer Maggie Carey, making her feature debut, stuffs era-specific signifiers into every nook and cranny of the dialogue, costumes, settings and song selection. If you ever wielded a Trapper Keeper, hiked up your denim skorts and squealed at the prospect of watching Beaches on VHS (the distinction made clear in case you assumed anyone in this film could afford Laserdiscs), then you'll be on this like Humpy Hump to a bowl of lumpy oatmeal. If you just groaned at that analogy, you'll long for the subtlety of Greg Mottola's Adventureland very early on.

Brandy consults her experienced best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), as well as her abrasive big sister Amber (former O.C. babe Rachel Bilson, uncharacteristically uproarious), for guidance/pressure as she randomly fulfills her fuck-it list. The only person initially willing to experiment with her is the unfortunately-named Cameron Mitchell (Johnny Simmons), the reluctantly platonic friend who doesn't realize his role as mere guinea pig and confuses Brandy's advances as romantic interest until she stands him up on a date and he conveniently discovers her records. Brandy's not too distressed as she's got a bigger fish to hook, namely Rusty, whom she decides will be just the right person to deflower her once there's nothing more to learn.

The premise is prototypical early 1980s child's play, but this time, the focus is on a single strong-willed heroine instead of a group of boorish mates. More vexing are some meandering concessions to the summer camp formula through Brandy's temp job as a lifeguard for the local public pool/daycare center, where she's humiliated to no end by her crude boss Willy (Bill Hader), although the worst incident involves a floating brown log which she assumes to be a Caddyshack-style goof until she actually tastes the truth for herself. Did I mention Willy has a rivalry with the elite country club vandals? This is bad Meatballs sequel territory which has no bearing on the plot or even a worthy pay-off.

Speaking of which, our Bill Murray in this case is Aubrey Plaza, not merely a decade too old for the part but also too confined to her sardonically defensive persona as cultivated on TV's Parks and Recreation. It's hard to shake the feeling that this could've been a spin-off movie for April Ludgate with only a few quick re-writes. This only worsens the character flaws of Brandy Clark, a studious, self-centered automaton rarely allowed the sliver of a genuine conscience or spontaneous vibrancy. A gutsier move would've been casting either Sarah Steele or perennial second-banana Alia Shawkat, routinely denied the vehicle she truly deserves in the wake of not just Arrested Development but also Drew Barrymore's undervalued Whip It, as the blossoming bookworm. Either of them could have made Brandy affecting, whereas Carey and Plaza jointly render her facetious.

Plaza, to her credit, gives off a few glimmers of expressive subtlety and is reliably game when it comes to the many seed-spilling scenarios thrown her way. As a sketch-comedy veteran consigned to a vignette-centric narrative, Carey calls upon the talents of several big name comic performers who liven up the episodic succession of semen and lube gags. Alas, for every sublime showcase for someone like the invaluable Bill Hader, who often reaches for a chuckle yet knows when to sincerely drop his guard unlike Plaza, or the giddy Andy Samberg as the vainglorious, spacey grunge rock singer whom Brandy goes oral for, there's a squandered appearance by Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the weaselly best friend or Donald Glover as the straightforward token minority conquest. Too much of The To Do List feels ancillary and aimlessly vulgar, not to mention anachronistic in the many blatant similarities to American Pie (chiefly in form of Brandy's oppositional caregivers played by Connie Britton and Clark Gregg). This formless familiarity undercuts the easygoing sense of gender-reversed generosity Carey wrote into the story.

Remember those frank, funny conversations Stacy and Linda had in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or even the asides between Vicky and Jessica from American Pie? Carey captures the spirit of those scenes in the many zippy exchanges between Brandi, Fiona and Wendy, who are enlightened by magazine articles about the nifty benefits of pineapple juice and the solidarity found in Bette Midler sing-a-longs. And it ends zestfully with a long-overdue orgasmic climax that supports the girlish inhibitions coded throughout the film. The males in the film are properly mocked for their conservatism, and the moral is treated with both a bratty indifference and a bold defiance. Contrary to what Brandy's dad believes, it's best to leave some doors, even the ones in the back, open since that is how the light gets in.

Carey earnestly aims for a John Hughes-style youth caper which takes account of sexual "edge" of such forebears as Porky's or The Last American Virgin. Truth of the matter is that the majority of those pre-Sixteen Candles films were too easily distracted, morally bankrupt and downright sexist to make their growing pains resonate. Hughes' sense of ambiguity, surrealism and empathy set a standard which not only helped legitimize the teen flick in the 1980s, it planted a giving tree for future generations to harvest. His broad strokes seemed organic rather than contrived, the fantasy elements came with a premium (there's no denying that The Breakfast Club would be back in their separate food groups come Monday) and when he directed Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy, the actresses didn't come across as mannered or self-conscious. Carey is closer to the exploitative aesthetic rather than the emotional, which does a disservice to both her revitalizing perspective and her stunted, stunt-casted leading lady. It also makes The To Do List a way more apt title in hindsight than "The Hand Job."

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