Monday, July 29, 2013

The To Do List

"The To Do List" is the first teen comedy in a good while to possess the humor, truthfulness and heart of the better works of John Hughes.
I suspect that for many girls of high school graduation age (and women of twice their age; it's set in 1993), it will become as cherished a favorite as "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" for my generation.

For starters, it's got a great opening credits sequence. Remember those? We used to get them regularly, on films such as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Ruthless People." This one's a dandy, full of half-forgotten early-90's cultural references sure to evoke smiles of recognition on the faces of those of us who grew up with them (including the painful-to-recall song played over the credits in its explicit entirety).

Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the valedictorian of her Boise high school, who begins her speech, as the movie opens, by acknowledging the crowd's applause and quickly saying, "Please be quiet." She's a goody two shoes who's been sheltered all her life by her father, a judge (Clark Gregg), who believes his wife was also a virgin until their wedding night, and her slightly more realistic mother (Connie Britton), who lets him.

Brandy's never done anything of a sexual nature, but when her two best friends Fiona and Wendy (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), the best Greek chorus of gal pals since Corey and D.C. in "say anything…," frame college in terms Brandy understands - "It's one big test, and you'd better do your homework" - she draws up (using a ruler to ensure the sides are straight) a checklist of activities to be completed by summer's end. (I knew Brandy was a kindred spirit when Fiona asked her, "Who are you going to teabag?" and her immediate response was, "You mean 'whom.'")

The pot of gold at the end of the carnal rainbow is sexual intercourse with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), the blond, ineffably godlike head lifeguard she works with at the city pool managed by perpetually stoned non-swimmer Willy (Bill Hader). Meanwhile, she lets her friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the good guy who actually likes her, help her lower her purity test score with hand jobs and such. Are there some gross-out scenes and cringe-inducing moments in "The To Do List"? For sure, but that's just the reality of human development.
Not everything in the movie works, and Plaza herself doesn't show much in the way of comedic chops or movie-star presence (you may imagine any of half a dozen other young actresses in the part). But there are a lot of big laughs and sly chuckles in its brisk runtime, and you can feel writer-director Maggie Carey's fondness for her characters in the sweetness and sensitivity that ultimately predominate over the profanity and sexuality of her film.

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