Monday, November 25, 2013

FI: The To Do List

The To Do List
US, 2013
Written and directed by Maggie Carey

There are several things to admire about The To Do List. It's a coming-of-age/gross-out comedy (in the American Pie vein), written and directed by a woman and focusing on the experiences of a female character, hyper-organized overachiever Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), as she discovers her sexuality via a list of acts to try before college. All of these things are fairly uncommon even in today's post-Bridesmaids film industry, which still sidelines women on both sides of the camera and rarely allows them the same sexual or gross misadventures that males routinely get. The film never judges Brandy or pretends that the sexual acts on her titular "to do list" are somehow "wrong" for a woman, a refreshing stance to take when most media assumes it's sinful for women to experience sexual desire outside of monogamous relationships or the pursuit thereof. Neither does it pretend it needs some kind of reason to be gross—after all, its not as though male comedies do—or hide the fact that women are full human beings, with all of the good and bad things that entails, rather than objects existing solely on the madonna/whore dichotomy. This is all commendable, heartening stuff, all of which makes me wonder why my admiration didn't translate to warmer feelings towards the film itself.

Some of the problem stems from the film's '90s setting. The movie is loosely based on writer-director Carey's own teenage years during that time, but the era's signifiers like music or fashion feel like nostalgia signposts and aren't fully integrated with the film's story—unlike (and lord help me for positively invoking a Sandler movie) The Wedding Singer, whose '80s milieu seems more integral to the film in spite of its own abundant signposting. But this isn't an insurmountable problem, hardly the sort of thing to derail a film. Worse, perhaps, are some of the characterizations. On the whole, the cast is solid, and Plaza nails her role by mitigating her usual sardonic deadpan with notes of naivety and eager determination. It's also nice to see comedy favorites like Alia Shawkat and Donald Glover in supporting roles (along with Glover's Derrick Comedy pals DC Pierson and Domic Dierkes in cameos). Clark Gregg and Connie Britton are strong as Brandy's parents, and I'm glad they don't hit the standard parental beats regarding the film's sexual content, although the script goes to the well a little too often with Gregg's character's very dad-typical sexual hang-ups. But other characters, like Brandy's besotted lab partner (Johnny Simmons) and trendy older sister (Rachel Bilson) feel too broadly sketched.

This broadness hints at The To Do List's other major issue: a tonal mismatch between the broad, disgusting, cringey moments, and the more emotional, character-driven side of things. The film is at its best when it reverses expectations, like the subtle ways it plays with what, at first, seem like stock character types and default narrative beats, and I've only come to appreciate this aspect more over the days since I watched the movie. This is because these elements seem more at home in a dramedy or a film with more emotional resonance, while the gags involving poop, public lewdness, and the old "lost swimsuit" trope come from a very different, Porky's-style sex comedy. As such, the big gross laughs feel tacked on and don't hit as hard as the more character-based ones, while the places where grand emotional beats should fall instead feel a bit cheapened by the gross bits that preceded them. It's a difficult balance to attain, especially for a first-time writer-director, so it's hard to fault Carey given her obvious sincerity and all of the walls she's trying to break down here. For me, though, The To Do List doesn't quite iron out the divide between each of the films it's trying to be, and, as a result, never settles into being as funny or affecting as it could have been had it only bridged that gap.

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