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The To Do List (2013)

Checking Off All Over the Place

I can't tell if The To Do List is subjectively bad, objectively bad, or both. To find the ultimate answer, I suppose, would involve unraveling mankind's centuries-long quest for absolute truth--but this movie isn't worth that kind of scrutiny, so let's move along.

Set in 1993 Boise, Idaho, the film stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, a socially awkward high school valedictorian who decides to lose her virginity before starting college. When I say "socially awkward", please understand that I don't mean "shy, kind-hearted wallflower who has trouble talking to boys". No, Brandy is Napoleon Dynamite by way of Daria*--even though I'm sure writer/director Maggie Carey would love us to think of her as a feisty Diane Court (look it up).

Brandy is smart in the way Vulcans are smart: well-read but detached from human experience and devoid of all emotions--except embarrassment, envy, and vindictiveness. In any other movie, she would be the the comedic second-sidekick whom the lead virgin (the one with a soul) would help to lighten up in the group's quest to get laid. But no, The To Do List places this snippy, unrelatable, chart-making freak front and center, and I didn't buy her for a second. 

Maybe that's the joke. Or maybe I'm supposed to find it funny that Plaza, who will turn thirty next year, is playing eighteen. Oh, wait, no. The big gag is that the movie is set in the 90s, when everything was colorful, stupid, and old. Or maybe it's--

Sorry, I shouldn't bore you with my theatre-going flashbacks. I spent most of the movie wondering who it was aimed at; what I was supposed to laugh at and why; and wishing to God I'd never imposed my "No Walk-outs Rule". The only thing that separates The To Do List from every other teen-sex comedy since American Pie is that it centers on a female's experience.

Notice I didn't say "the" female experience, because Brandy Klark is unbelievable as anything but a whole-cloth creation; there's nothing genuine about her, nothing that speaks to the writer's having invested something of herself into this character. It's all cum jokes and cattiness, pop-songs, and poop gags. Change the protagonist's gender, and you're left with a direct-to-video American Pie prequel.

I can't, in good conscience, exit the review without discussing some plot specifics. The film's conceit is that before Brandy can lose her V-card to dreamy, vacuous lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she must first cover all the other bases and their variations. She draws a hand-ruled chart in her Trapper Keeper** and fills it with columns for sexual positions and the names of prospective test subjects. We watch as she jerks, blows, and finger-blasts her way through the list, in the clinical, heavy-lidded, let's-get-this-over-with manner of a retired coroner. Even in the shallowest male-driven sex comedies, there's a hint of nervous reverence to the momentousness of losing one's virginity. Often, Brandy appears to be three items further down the list before Candidate Q has even finished in her mouth.

If that's too raunchy for you, you'll probably love The To Do List, a movie that wears its alleged edginess on its sleeve. But if you've seen the truly groundbreaking, soulful, and funny Fast Times at Ridgemont High (a paradigm-shifting smash more than three decades ago), this movie's implied anal sex, references to lesbian encounters, and jokes about parents doing the nasty will likely have all the shock value of pre-teens swearing for attention at the dinner table.

This film has no voice, and it shows. Brandy kind of learns a lesson towards the end, but it feels like an anachronism. After banging (an accurate term in this case) Rusty, and finally realizing that her earnest, goofy best friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons) has feelings for her, she decides that sex is not a big enough deal to either waste on a moron or give to someone she really cares about. Yeah, have fun with that one.

Full disclosure, I was a teenager in 1993. And while I didn't have my finger on the pulse of a generation, I was definitely of that generation. This was pre-Clinton/Lewinsky, pre-Internet insta-porn. In other words, sex was still a mystery to those of us whose parents didn't have massive, secret VHS vaults in their studies or boxes of Penthouse buried in the back of the closet (and even for some of us who did). Sure, people complained that sex was too pervasive in advertising and popular culture, but they couldn't have predicted a world where every fetish imaginable would be available on-demand, in our pockets.

I hate to say it was a simpler time, but it was a simpler time. And The To Do List fails by not recognizing 1993 as the era of 90210 and not Girls (or, hell, even Gossip Girl). Casual hook-ups, underage drinking, drug use, and, yes, even that lame right of passage called sex, were still big deals. If this movie had been released then, I'm pretty sure two things would have happened:

1. Mass head-scratching by audience members at the film's Jerry Maguire reference.

2. Brandy Klark would have been considered a demented monster, a slut in sheep's clothing. Today, not so much--but Carey deliberately sets her story in a decade where these characters and views don't make sense.

Does anything work in this movie? Yes, Bill Hader is great as Brandy's boss. A burn-out slacker, he runs the local pool and tries to keep his crippling fear of water a secret . Over the course of the picture, he develops a paternal affection for Brandy and displays the story's single realistic adult attitude towards teenage sexual awakening--too bad it's squandered during the climax.

I laughed three times during The To Do List, thanks to Hader's inspired comic delivery. But three laughs over the course of a hundred-and-four ugly, pointless minutes does not equal a recommendation. With all the great, good, and kind-of-okay sex comedies out there, you can safely strike this one from your "must-see" list.

*Oddly enough, Plaza also stars in a new College Humor short that imagines the sarcastic MTV cartoon character attending her high school reunion. It's not that great, but neither is The To Do List, and I'm all about saving my precious handful of readers time and money.

**Remember those? Hi-LAAAR-ious!

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