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Entries in 30 Minutes or Less [2011] (1)


30 Minutes or Less (2011)

It's All in the Delivery

The trailer for Ruben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less is terrible. There's nothing about it to suggest that the movie is anything more than another misstep in this summer's laugh-free, R-rated comedy slog. Sure, it promises more action than Bridesmaids or Bad Teacher, but the jokes are as desperate as a three-year-old shouting "Penis!" at the dinner table. I attended an advanced screening last night, and today I have a message for the Columbia Pictures marketing department: You've got exactly five weeks to get your act together. I don't care how hard it is to re-cut that trailer without giving everything away or butting heads with the censors, but you're in danger of under-selling one of the best comedies in recent years.

The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Nick, a directionless pizza-delivery boy whose only friend is Chet (Aziz Ansari), a substitute teacher who sees his new job at a Grand Rapids middle school as the pinnacle of slacker success. They've been best friends since childhood, just like Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), a pair of dumb thugs who live across town. Dwayne's lottery-winning, Marine Corps-vet dad (Fred Ward) is sitting on a million-dollar fortune, and his idiot son hatches a murder plot that indirectly involves taking Nick hostage and strapping a bomb to his chest.

Most of 30 Minutes or Less takes place during the ten hours Nick has ticking down on his Red Digital Readout. Over the course of this crazy day, he will rope Chet into helping him rob a bank, profess his love for Chet's sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), steal a car, get into several high-speed chases, and take on a recently paroled gangster named Chango (Michael Peña)--who's also after a cut of Dwayne's family fortune.

To give any more away would be to spoil one of the tightest, most plot- and character-heavy 86-minute movies I've ever seen. There's so much going on here, often at a very frenetic pace, that one could easily mistake this as a two-and-a-half-hour action epic. Which isn't to say that it drags. First-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti masters the roller-coaster rhythms of the classic buddy-action-comedies that his characters love to reference--in addition to seasoning the material with some genuinely frightening and intense moments. I marveled at the delicacy with which Diliberti and Fleischer seamlessly made their ridiculously pompous criminals into menacing figures; they capture the tragi-comic danger of the frustrated-idiot archetype as definitively as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers.

In addition to a marvelous script, 30 Minutes or Less boasts a surprisingly effective cast. I can't tell if Eisenberg is channeling a less-ambitious version of his Social Network persona, or if I just missed something in Adventureland and Zombieland; whatever the case, his Nick is note-perfect in his disillusioned self-absorption; over the course of the movie, it matures into selflessness--if not a desire to actually do something with his life. Ansari makes a great comic sidekick; a manic ball of paranoid energy, he never lets Nick forget that he's wearing a bomb of questionable stability. Though he teeters on the edge of being Screaming Guy, his chemistry with Eisenberg is undeniable; the actors balance each other out, and make for a classic comedy duo.

Note: When people use the word "classic" to describe a movie or an aspect of a movie, it's typically lazy shorthand meaning, "this is a direct rip-off of something you've already seen and probably cherish". My intent in using it here is to denote a pairing that I hope will be remembered as being as great as Murphy and Nolte or Gibson and Glover; but which is its own, unique thing.

As criminals who aspire to ruthlessness but often succumb to guilt and stupidity, McBride and Swardson have never been better. Again, I believe most of this goes back to the writing. McBride plays yet another variation on his egomaniacal asshole character, but Dwayne doesn't live to smoke pot or make jokes about getting laid. He's got ambitions in life, but is only willing to take a homicidal shortcut to achieve them. Swardson's Travis is just an odd dude; with a bloated face that looks like it's ever-melting into a tattered collar and a dead-house-centipede moustache, the actor is the embodiment of humiliation. He's Dwayne's lapdog, but also his wimpy conscience; fortunately, there's no grand, defiant moment at the end of the film to drag the story into cliche. Travis is a bitch, through and through, and is mostly happy just to be walked by his master.

I'd be remiss in not giving a shout-out to Peña, who, of all the characters in the film, best represents what Diliberti and Fleischer are trying to do here. Chango comes onto the scene looking like a tattooed brick wall, an indomitable force that can't be reasoned with; but when he opens his mouth, we get a slightly fey, mumbling style of speech that belies everything we think we know about him; on the third side of this coin is the mind behind the voice and the body, which is focused and heartless. All of these aspects come out in 30 Minutes or Less, keeping the audience on its toes whenever Chango pulls up in his lowrider.

Ultimately, what sets this film apart from the season's other allegedly edgy R-rated comedies is a willingness to explore its premise to the fullest. Bridesmaids claimed to be about strong female bonds, but wound up being an over-long sketch-fest that had less insight than the worst episode of Gilmore Girls. Bad Teacher was so very naughty in its Daisy-Dukes car wash scene, but it existed in a purpose vaccuum--saying nothing about the state of our educational system, human relationships, or even American comedy (except, maybe, that peoples' bar for raunch has been lowered to an "Oh no she di'n'!" level of cheapness).

30 Minutes or Less touches on themes of friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, family, the down economy, and the folly of pop-culture as a substitute for education--all in the guise of a freewheeling pseudo-heist comedy. The film is so sharp and well-observed that maybe it's impossible to cram its essence into a thirty-second TV commercial or two-minute theatrical trailer. As it stands, the movie looks like every other late-summer stab at easy laughs. But you should definitely see this when it hits theatres next month; not only to revel in the discovery of a very funny, very talented new screenwriter, but also to support smart comedies. This is a special film, unlike ninety-nine percent of the market-flooding summer garbage, which should be trimmed to thirty minutes and then given away for free.

Note: At a post-screening Q&A with stars Eisenberg and Ansari, moderated by Steve Prokopy ("Capone" of Ain't it Cool News), I was again reminded of how few people actually know how to participate in a proper movie discussion. For starters, kids, don't ask any question you may have seen posed to a celebrity during the Access Hollywood leg of a press junket. Though you may think you're giving Eisenberg food for thought by inquiring as to how heavy the bomb vest was, or if he an Ansari could think of any bad jobs they might have had before becoming famous, you might as well be asking what their favorite color is, or what they had for lunch.

Also, most people are aware of the real-life tragedy that may or may not have inspired 30 Minutes or Less. If you honestly want to bring a lighthearted, post-screening discussion to a grinding halt and elicit groans amidst the awkward silence, at least do so at an event where the director or screenwriter are present. Two people made passive-aggressive jabs at Eisenberg and Ansari, and it's a credit to Prokopy that he was able to save the conversation by demanding that the next question not be "about real-life death".

Today's lesson: Pick your battles, and realize that your hard-hitting questions are just hipster douche-baggery in disguise.