'The To Do List': Funny, raunchy and lovable
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
In a post-"Bridesmaids" world, it's both surprising and disheartening that there's yet to be an heir apparent to the raunchy charms of Paul Feig's star-making blockbuster (though the director and star Melissa McCarthy did some very nice work with their follow-up, "The Heat"). While not a clear-cut winner in the race to find the next great female-centric comedy, Maggie Carey's "The To Do List" doesn't shy away from using the messiest aspects of sexual discovery to tell an often very funny story that's entirely pinned on the chops of its rising-star leading lady, Aubrey Plaza.
Carey's script has long been a darling of the comedy set, and was even used for an uproarious live read back in 2010 at the Austin Film Festival, when it was known by its original title, "The Hand Job." Plaza read the part of uptight virgin valedictorian Brandy Klark way back then, and has been attached to the part since (comedian Bill Hader read the role that he would eventually play in the film). Flipping a relatively simple story on its head, the sex comedy plot of "The To Do List" is the sort that peppered theaters in the '80s, though almost always with a male lead. The movie centers on Brandy's summerlong quest to bone up big-time on her sexual experiences, all in hopes of losing her virginity at the end of the season to the sexy college guy (Scott Porter) she lifeguards alongside at their local Boise pool.
A list-maker and planner by nature, Brady approaches her tasks with the precision and dedication she surely used for her straight-A homework, and the results elicit laughs thanks to both their highly raunchy nature and Brandy's continued go-for-it spirit. Of course, there is bound to be some collateral damage during Brandy's quest to get some, and Carey smartly layers in emotional fallout for a myriad of characters, from Brandy's pining lab partner, Cameron (Johnny Simmons), to her at-first encouraging best pals, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), to even her lovable-loser boss, Willy (Hader).
Brandy is certainly a more peppy role for Plaza, who has spent the past couple of years portraying outwardly cold characters with warm, gooey centers (her work on television's "Parks and Recreation" is the gold standard for this kind of work, but she played the same part with a slightly higher pitch in the recent indie "Safety Not Guaranteed"). It's interesting to see Plaza reaching a bit deeper with her acting, and she plays the guileless Brandy with bravery to spare. While the rest of the cast is rounded out by a bevy of recognizable talents (including Clark Gregg, Connie Britton, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), it's Carey's casting of Rachel Bilson as Brandy's ditzy and dizzy sister Amber that is particularly ingenious and enjoyable.
The film's main problem is that Carey attempts to do far too much in just one outing. The film is too long to maintain proper comedic timing, its script is littered with plot points better suited for actual comedies from the '80s and '90s (including a prank war with the "rich kid pool" that comes out of nowhere). The so gleefully 1993-set production is rife with unavoidable anachronisms (from song choices to props, including Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," a song that wasn't released until spring of 1994, and a very prominent Trapper Keeper, which no high schooler would ever carry past 1988). Yet "The To Do List" is still a fine debut film for Carey, one that proves her comedic talent and ability to write female characters who are very funny, very raunchy and very lovable.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in New York City.