'30 Minutes or Less': Lean, Mean, Funny
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It would be easy -- no, make that it is easy -- to deplore, or at least strongly object to, the new, ostensibly envelope-pushing comedy "30 Minutes or Less" on morals/taste grounds right off the bat, without even seeing it. After all, its premise -- pizza delivery guy is forced to rob a bank because depraved criminals have strapped a live, remote-controlled bomb to his upper torso -- is pretty much photocopied from a real-life crime of 2003 that ended with the death of the victim of the kidnapping and bomb-strapping, and said crime was not funny in the least.
So, yes, boo to Hollywood opportunism, boo to screenwriter Michael Diliberti, boo to his story collaborator Matthew Sullivan, boo, boo, boo. I wish I could maintain my entirely justified stance of moral superiority, but unfortunately, crassness of the derivation of its premise aside, "30 Minutes or Less" worked for me: It's punchy, nasty, laugh-out-loud-funny stuff that doesn't flag or wear out its welcome. Clocking in at a mere 83 minutes (why, that's not even three times 30!), it has so little dead air that one might even legitimately call it the "His Girl Friday" of bomb-strapped-to-the-chest caper comedies.
The story line is a fairly elaborate one, given that the movie is for the most part a series of comic exchanges between two sets of two characters. Crapulent layabout Dwayne (Danny McBride) wants to off his oppressive dad (Fred Ward) and so concocts a scheme with his dim-bulb best friend and "business" partner Travis (Nick Swardson) to rob a bank via a torso-bomb hostage. That hostage will be Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), the bright but directionless (too much weed, romantic disappointment) pizza delivery guy who's on the outs with his own best friend and roomie Chet (Aziz Ansari) on account of being in love with his sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). The pals throw in together after Nick's kidnapped and placed in his awkward position.
This may seem like an odd movie for the Oscar-nominated Eisenberg to be in, and it's perhaps odder still that his function here is more or less as straight man to the motor-mouthed Ansari, who really steps up the obnoxious persona he's honed on the sitcom "Parks and Recreation." But the duo play off each other beautifully, and Eisenberg's dry mode is as effective as his desperate one. I hear a number of people are approaching this film with a severe case of Danny McBride fatigue; as I've always been kind of take-it-or-leave-it on the McBride issue, I have little reason to be either elated or disappointed by his turn here. I think it was wise to make his character 100-percent unappealing rather than ironically unappealing, inverse unappealing, or whatever they're calling these you-hate-'em-but-you-really-love-'em characters that populate so much of what somebody on the Internet termed "edgy niche humor" these days. As for Swardson, he's just right in an old-school "Which way did he go, George?" mode of dumb. Michael Peña shows up midway through and seems to really enjoy upending his usual soulful Latino role, playing a moronic and therefore more than conventionally lethal would-be hit man.
It's all very yes-we're-going-there in terms of the dialogue, and knowing with the pop culture references (there's a Facebook joke that actually works, for reasons pertaining to an earlier Eisenberg film), so there's not much new ground broken. But the jokes are almost all good, and director Ruben Fleischer (who also made the entertaining and not morally uplifting "Zombieland," also with Eisenberg) is pretty great with the timing and ruthless about keeping the whole thing fat-free. While one might not be able to forgive the filmmakers on account of their not knowing what they do, they can be awarded points for scoring hard laughs.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.