‘The To Do List’
Director: Maggie Carey
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons
In “The To Do List,” Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy Clark, a mathlete and shameless grammarian who doesn’t cuss and has graduated high school without ever having gotten to first base. To enter college with some preparation, she sets out on a massive sexual assignment, racking up firsts, such as French-kissing, dry-humping and other activities unprintable in this newspaper.
The film, for the fun of it, is set in 1993, which is about when smirking, ironic detachment was at its peak. It’s a dead, retro tone Plaza, on “Parks and Recreation” and elsewhere, has dusted off and made her own. “The To Do List” fits her persona to a T, for good and ill — for good, because the film doesn’t have a sincere bone in its body, and for ill, because of the same reason. It’s good that Brandy is never going to truly realize such recessive lessons, like that loveless sex is bad. When the film does turn to climactic homilies, they’re patently inauthentic, close to rom-com parody.
It’s less good that there’s nothing at all on its mind — that it doesn’t appear to believe in anything. That’s not true: It believes that a thin script can be padded out by a cast of talented ringers ad-libbing up a storm. It has plenty of those: Bill Hader as a boozing local pool operator; Alia Shawkat, milking every second of an otherwise thankless role as one of Brandy’s experienced friends; and Rachel Bilson, surprisingly sharp as her much more abrasive sister.
It also has Plaza, whose performance is more like a supporting turn anyway. She just goes for yuks, as though unconcerned about the heavy lifting that comes with playing lead. The ironic thing about Plaza is that, hilarious as she consistently is, she’s even better when earnest. “Safety Not Guaranteed” found her allowing cracks of real emotion to form in her steely performance style. Sincerity from her is all the more affecting because it’s so utterly unexpected. “The To Do List” is a step back; it’s her shtick as straitjacket. The film is often funny. It’s also frustrating: Its sex jokes are lamely shocking, the direction is amateurish, even for a comedy, and it breaks well past the 90-minute mark — the point where affable time-wasters like this turn into pumpkins.