Someone needs to start a Kickstarter campaign to get Aubrey Plaza some acting lessons. That comment sounds infinitely more cruel than intended; Plaza has long been a pivotal, hilarious supporting figure on NBC’s fantastic sitcom Parks and Recreation, and just last year she took a solid starring turn alongside Mark Duplass in Safety Not Guaranteed, but the numerous delights of her work in both underscore the limits of her range as a performer. There’s nothing wrong with having a niche, of course, but her schtick – “deadpan, apathetic, couldn’t-care-less twenty-something” – is not only specific in the extreme but also incapable of sustaining a feature-length picture for its total running time.
Which might suggest that The To Do List, Plaza’s latest jaunt into film and featuring filmmaker/screenwriter Maggie Carey in her directorial debut, is kind of a dud, but happily this is a case where the whole winds up being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also one of the raunchiest comedies released in 2013, a movie that feels tamer than last year’s Klown but still infinitely more impish, edgy, and willing to go to the edge of good taste than the majority of its competition. (This Is the End notwithstanding. It doesn’t get raunchier than Danny McBride using Channing Tatum as his sex slave.) But where a picture like This Is the End almost feels expected considering the source, The To Do List feels almost sickeningly refreshing; it’s the rare moment in gross-out canon where gender roles flip, affording its female cast the opportunity to nauseate their audience.
The film follows Plaza’s bookish, bossy, endlessly awkward class valedictorian, Brandy, as she figures out how she’s going to spend her last summer vacation before shipping off to college: learning about sex. She’s organized and good at accomplishing tasks, she reasons, so losing her virginity and experiencing the joys of carnal debauchery shouldn’t be too much of a problem; hence she whips up the list of the title, a chart detailing the various sex acts she wants to try (and which has plenty of room for her to record her findings). As expected she quickly comes to see how woefully wrong her assumptions really are, and bumbling, clumsy attempts at something resembling sex ensue.
There’s a lot of good worth mining from The To Do List in the abstract; apart from the fact that Plaza remains incredibly funny despite her dramatic shortcomings (she’s the last person on this green Earth who should be playing a peppy overachiever), Carey has made a movie that has a lot of vital things to say about female sexuality, perhaps made more vital when considered alongside current cultural dialogues about a woman’s right to govern her own body. This is a film where the female lead chooses sex, where sex is something she exerts control over, and where she explores her own sexuality according to her own logic and her own desires.
It’s also a film where she and Johnny Simmons (who, unlike Plaza, is 100% playing toward type here as her dorky-but-sweet love interest) get…well, let’s say handsy in a movie theater. Maybe it’s hard to unpack anything of thematic value out of a film that tries so hard to be bawdy (and mostly succeeds), but on a similar token it’s unreasonable to rob The To Do List of these elements just because it dares to be dirty. What Carey’s writing and direction lack in insight and elegance it makes up for in chutzpah – not necessarily the kind required to homage Pink Flamingos, but to tinker with the gender politics inherent in the sub-genre of teen sex comedy.
And, again, the film happens to be hysterical. That’s probably half the battle with comedy in general; when punchlines hit us the way they should, it becomes much, much easier to forgive a film for its foibles. That’s a kind way of saying that you’ll probably observe narratives executed with much greater success at the cinema this year (you probably have already). As Brandy compiles her list and forges ahead into untested waters, The To Do List surrounds her quest with an overarching dialogue that’s rife with sexual epiphanies – sometimes sex is just sex, and who you have sex with matters, except when it doesn’t (Carey kind of bungles that second one) – but they all land with resounding thuds. Maybe Plaza’s delivery is part of the problem there, but trite sexual platitudes are trite sexual platitudes no matter who utters them.
All of this would play like something out of an after school special if The To Do List wasn’t so unapologetically, wonderfully filthy. There’s something almost celebratory about the graphically suggestive sexuality here; watching the film build to its big moments of teenage sexual abandon gone wrong feels akin to watching a cat coyly knock stemware off of the kitchen table, as though Carey, Plaza, and the rest of the knock-out cast all know they’re doing something naughty but refuse to let that stop them. Whether it’s Willy (Bill Hader), Brandy’s boss at a local public pool, being caught in an uncompromising position with Amber (Rachel Bilson), Brandy’s sister, by Judge (Clark Gregg), Brandy’s father, The To Do List understands the mechanics of comedic escalation.
So everything about the film that’s clunky gets a pass. Even though The To Do List is exactly the sort of picture that should be taken lightly, I’d characterize it as something that deserves to be taken at least half-seriously. It’s a lewd, fluid-obsessed lark, but the twists it applies to what’s otherwise fairly boilerplate 90’s material – there’s a reason the film is drawing comparisons to American Pie – make it stand out and give it something to actually say. It might be hard to decipher the message through its vulgar noise, but it’s worth listening to nonetheless.