30 Minutes or Less is a movie that takes risks. In a flat landscape of studio movies that seem mostly to be shoved into a formula that doesn’t quite work anymore, watching this film is like drinking an ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day that’s been spiked with stuff that would put hair on your chest. For all the laughs and gore of Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer seems to have taken this comedy about a pizza boy forced to rob a bank simply to further prove he can get away with anything he wants.
And he gets away with it because the movies he makes are damned funny.
This is a film for adults that grabs its anatomy, goes about its business, and doesn’t care to cater to any particular sensibility. It’s because of that attitude that it all works so well. The direction, the actors, and the writing commit fully to the premise and sell us on the bit by sheer willpower (and a healthy amount of adult language and situations).
Reteaming with Fleischer, Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick – a pizza boy that’s too old to be a pizza boy. He’s not like every other manchild character we’ve seen lately (he won’t be forming his own one-man wolf pack or anything), but he’s still a character whose potential has passed him by for fear that trying might mean failing. He’s smart, but he’s got a shitty, shitty life. By his side is Chet (Aziz Ansari) who has one of the best character introductions in comedy history – a man who seems far better at balancing his relative youth and his responsibilities. He’s the hip teacher you’re pretty sure has a tattoo and smokes pot (if you were old enough to make those assumptions (which his students are probably not)).
On the other side of the fence are Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) – two men frustrated with their dead-end lives, who realize they could benefit from the untimely demise of Dwayne’s father, The Major (Fred Ward), who won an ungodly amount of money in the lottery and now squanders what Dwayne sees as his inheritance and ticket to success. Their solution? Hire someone to kill him. The problem? Assassins cost a lot, and they need to find a chump to get that money for them.
Thus, the two worlds collide with a bomb in the middle.
There must have been a mountain of material from the comedic actors working here, and what propels this film to its raucous height is that Fleischer got rid of all but 86 minutes of it. And that’s with credits. This is a breezy film that flies by as fast as Nick drives around the neighborhoods of his small Michigan town. Not a second is wasted, but 30 Minutes still manages a solid first act where we get to know all four main characters fairly well. Nick and Chet have a friendship that’s failing (aided in part by Nick’s admission that he had sex with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) and that he might love her). Dwayne and Travis have terrible facial hair from the 70s, enjoy making bombs at home, and deal with being poor while surrounded by opulence. The Major treats his son like the pool boy, and Dwayne treats his best friend like something he accidentally stepped in.
Eisenberg shines here, somewhere in between his Zombieland nervousness and unwarranted cockiness from The Social Network. He’s a man who’s suddenly been forced to see the finish line of his life, and he uses the opportunity to finally carpe the diem he’s been slagging off. There are few actors that could have pulled the necessary mixture of humor and true fear out of a mesh baseball cap, but Eisenberg is certainly one of them – playing his scenes with impossible balance, still cracking wise with a face about to burst into tears. The fatality of his situation isn’t lost on him; it merely serves to heighten his sense and personality.
Ansari is as irreverent as always and nails down the darker parts with ease. Swardson uses that same ease to handle his character’s emotional arc (surprise! there are emotional arcs!) through the dilemma of being loyal to a best friend or owning up to his own sense of morality. Danny McBride is given the freedom to be as hate-worthy as he can be, and he goes off the glorious deep end with it. His brand of humor is typically caustic, but here it works perfectly (because we’re not asked to care about him in any way). Yet, even as the pure villain of the story, even McBride manages a modicum of sympathy. He’s a sociopath, but he’s hilarious, and his father issues weigh on him constantly. The acting pedigree even gets raised when Michael Pena enters the picture as a lisp-y, possibly-AIDS-having assassin who doesn’t fuck around. In a sea of ridiculously funny moments, perhaps the best comes when Pena is by himself, staring into a mirror.
Which leads to a major triumph for this film. All of the actors involved simultaneously steal scenes and set up their colleagues to spend the riches. Eisenberg, Swardson, Ansari, Pena, and McBride prove themselves here to be some of the best comedic minds around, and they all challenge each other to be better.
Add to that a director who isn’t complacent with turning the camera on and letting the actors do all the heavy lifting. The action is shot with carefully managed energy, and the driving scenes are thrilling (helped in part by the main character’s profession sharing a skill with getaway drivers). In the plainest words possible, it’s fun, and it delivers a blood-pumping break from the barrage of ab-crunchingly funny moments.
The combination of a script from Michael Diliberti that doesn’t stop to catch its breath and comedic actors who can keep pace gave Fleischer everything he needed to produce an F-bomb-filled opus to R-rated humor. Surprisingly, even as trim as it is, it still manages to build rounded characters, name its stakes, and then raise them both to the occasion.
The Upside: The hyperbole of the cliché is noted, but this is, so far, the funniest movie of the year.
The Downside: None that immediately come to mind.
On the Side: As seemingly contractually obligated at this point, Eisenberg makes this his third film where he’s referenced Facebook.