What do you write about a movie as ruthlessly, robotically dirty-minded as The To Do List? Here is a film so utterly committed to providing gross-out punchlines for its lewd, one-joke premise that it ends up stranding a talented cast with a painfully stiff, horrifically out-of-touch script that does more to enforce gender stereotypes than shatter them.
The film centers on gawky high-school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), who attempts to complete a check-list of sexual experiences before heading off to college. Getting in her way though is the competing attentions of sweet and sensitive Cameron (Johnny Simmons) and dreamboat Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who complicate Brandy’s studious and organized approach to intercourse.
My gut reaction to The To Do List was not revulsion but rather, disappointment. This comedy was meant to cement Plaza’s status as one of Hollywood’s most talented young comediennes, following two other terrific performances in NBC’s Parks & Recreation and indie darling Safety Not Guaranteed. Instead, writer-director Maggie Carey traps Plaza in a cartoonish role, saddles her with drab dialogue and mostly fails to draw on her hilariously deadpan comedic strengths.
That’s not to say that Plaza doesn’t try her damnedest to give Brandy some depth. Playing a hopelessly awkward academic, the actress nearly succeeds in making Brandy likeable. It’s a thankless task, and Plaza was certainly the wrong actress for the job. Her secret weapon, quietly fuming cynicism, is never utilized, and she struggles to find any truth beneath a purely one-note character. The obvious purpose of Carey’s script was to dissect the cultural archetypes of the virgin and the whore, but neither Brandy nor Carey ever strike a human balance whilst flip-flopping between the two. Brandy is rarely believable in either classification but also fails to arrive at the grand revelation that would allow her to comfortably inhabit a happy medium.
The supporting characters are just slightly better, but none of them ever get to dig beneath the surfaces of their characters. Johnny Simmons is a bright spot as the earnest Cameron, a sweet guy whom Brandy consistently dismisses. Bill Hader gets many laughs as burned-out pool manager Willy, while Rachel Bilson, playing Brandy’s sexually-savvy older sister Amber, is possibly the film’s strongest character. Amber’s hateful relationship with Brandy is unintentionally off-putting, but the story does reveal her insecurities while handing Bilson consistently funny material.
Conversely, both Connie Britton and Clark Gregg are criminally underused as Brandy’s sexually awkward parents, and terrific character actors like Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Andy Samberg are all given frustratingly little screen time. With such a strong cast of characters, it’s a pity that Carey never finds a way to utilize most of them.
The To Do List was likely sold as American Pie from the female perspective, and Carey almost fools you into thinking that she’s succeeded in putting a fresh spin on that comedy classic. There’s a gag about a hand job that almost rivals Jim’s pie-loving, and both protagonists are continuously embarrassed by their sexual naiveté. And as Brandy consults her sex-obsessed friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, both solid) about the finer points of intercourse, some moments have a sweetened, conversational charm.
What The To Do List is missing, however, is an actual heart to go along its raunchy, sometimes even scatological, humor. None of Carey’s characters are nearly as sincere or lovable as the American Pie gang; instead of bona fide human beings, they feel like thinly-sketched emcees designed to point viewers towards the next gross-out gag. Any message The To Do List may have once had is stifled by the film’s immature treatment of sex. While American Pie made many intriguing statements about the face of teenage sexuality, the only takeaway that Carey presents is the eye-rolling proclamation that, “Sex is just sex.” You don’t say.
Peppering her scenes with pointlessly explicit vulgarities, Carey does her utmost to bastardize teen romance and launch an embittered attack on sex that’s less warts-and-all than exclusively warts. Clearly, such a repellent approach wasn’t Carey’s intention, as she never inflects her smutty script with any of the intelligence it desperately needs. No, The To Do List feels more like the woefully misguided product of Carey’s attempt to demystify teenage sexual awakening by painting a borderline-pornographic picture.
American Pie is one of my favorite movies, so raunch is never usually a mitigating factor for me. However, The To Do List never earns its gross-out moments, and there’s no rhyme or reason for a lot of the ickier stuff Carey explores. It truly pains me to say this, but The To Do List‘s treatment of sexual desire reminds me a lot more of Movie 43 than that aforementioned golden standard of the sex comedy subgenre.
Though the film itself is sub-par, Sony’s 1080p Blu-Ray transfer pops in all the right places. The film’s ’90s setting provides a lot of crazy and colorful clothing, and the picture is sharply presented while also remaining true to the retro feel of the movie. Particularly in scenes set at Willy’s pool, the picture quality is superb.
Same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, which successfully balances The To Do List‘s blasting soundtrack and fast-paced dialogue. Fans of the time period will get a kick out of the awesome soundtrack, which features the likes of 2 Live Crew, Spin Doctors, Mazzy Star and Salt-N-Pepa. All of the acts featured on the soundtrack sound better than they ever have before, so if ’90s-style pop songs are your jam, The To Do List is worth checking out just for that. Sony’s equal-handed treatment of music and dialogue is simply tops.
The To Do List is outfitted with a few special features:
- The Re-Do List: Gag Reel
- Maggie Carey: Directing Her To Do List
- Dirty Mouth: Naughty Word Montage
- Deleted & Extended Scenes
- Commentary with Bill Hader and Director Maggie Carey
- UltraViolet Digital Copy
The gag reel is pretty good, which is understandable given just how raunchy the material is. “Maggie Carey: Directing Her To Do List” is surprisingly short at only three minutes, but it offers a little clarification about the inspirations for the film and what it was like filming with such a talented cast. Far more insightful is the commentary with Hader and Carey, which reflects on the purpose of the movie, the difficulties of editing The To Do List and how they worked to develop the characters throughout the film. Luckily, Hader and Carey are both very funny people, and they keep their commentary light-footed and entertaining. Deleted and extended scenes are minimal, while the “Dirty Mouth” featurette is just as bad as it sounds.
While the Blu-Ray transfer is terrific, the film is most definitely not. Ultimately, strong actors aren’t enough to stop The To Do List‘s needlessly crass humor from crossing the line into unsavory self-parody.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Writer-director Maggie Carey leaves the heart out of this American Pie wannabe and wastes a supremely talented cast on a witless and off-puttingly vulgar script.