Volunteering to review a movie starring indie darling Aubrey Plaza, one that is at its core a movie about navigating the world of sex, is sort of a no-brainer. It makes a great date movie, allowing me to lure a lady-person into a potentially vulgar, laughter-filled evening. It also counts as a business expense. Take that Uncle Sam, I will take my handjob humor with a side of a deduction. So we set off, my lovely companion and I, expecting the promise of nostalgia in the trailers for The To Do List. What we got was that and a whole lot more – more of the weirdness, the awkward Aubrey Plaza fearlessness, more nostalgia, some emboldened female sensuality, a great soundtrack and plenty of that potent vulgarity. But most of all, it was great laugh. A harkening back to summer sex comedies, with a bit of a gender twist. Something that you might see come right out of the self-proclaimed progressive 90s.
Labeling The To Do List is simple. It’s a coming-of-age sex comedy with a foul mouth and an overwhelming nostalgia streak. Director Maggie Carey, making her feature debut after a number of successful short films and a season of Funny or Die Presents…, makes no attempt to hide what her movie is. Instead she embraces all the oddity and neon-colored uncoolness of the 1990s and paints her canvas with Saved by the Bell references and nods to Caddyshack and Snack Well’s creme sandwich cookies. As my aforementioned lovely companion commented in the lobby afterward, it was like reading a Buzzfeed article about all the best things you loved during the 90s. Which can be a bit overwhelming at times, as you can imagine.
Yet while nostalgia slows the story down a bit at certain points, it doesn’t completely kill the momentum built by some smart gags and a cast on a mission to make us laugh. While Carey’s production design team was out building Mount Nostalgia, her script was raiding the Bargain Cliche Bin at the local K-Mart. There’s a handsome musician, the hopeless romantic friend, the promiscuous best friends, the stoners, the creepy nerd – a world inhabited by Fionas, Ambers, Chips, a guy named Rusty Waters and at least one Chad, I’m sure of it. It’s all there, in spades. But the cast overcomes the tropes of the teen sex comedy, most notably in the case of Ms. Plaza.
As she’s shown us in a number of roles, Aubrey Plaza can play socially awkward with the best of them. She can also deliver authenticity, as she does when this character becomes confused, overwhelmed, emboldened and often humiliated. She’s our sexual Sally Ride, she loves Hilary Rodham Clinton and she has a thing for jorts, but Plaza’s Brandy does get to be more than just another hormonal teen on the quest to find sexual nirvana in the back of some guy’s van. There’s a message in Carey’s script that deals with sex in a frank, gender-balanced way. It tells its audience in small, often humorous doses that women should be in charge of their sexual destinies. That sometimes sex is just sex, and sometimes it is something more. In between all the poop in the swimming pool jokes and giggles about foreskin, The To Do List is a film that aspires to take a male-dominated genre – one that has given us the likes of American Pie, Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High – and put it in the hands of a smartly-constructed, intelligent, wonderfully-executed female character who is flawed and strong and fun to watch. It’s refreshing to see a movie aspire to a little more than just raiding that cliche bin.
Of course, it does get the laughs. Plaza’s Brandy is hell-bent on fulfilling her own sexual checklist during the summer before college and she’s got plenty of material to work with. She’s also surrounded with fun character players like Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson, Clark Gregg, Connie Britton, Jack McBrayer, Alia Shawkat, Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and a good portion of the Derrick Comedy crew (Donald Glover, DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes), with whom Plaza starred in Mystery Team. It’s the kind of 2010s cast that reminds us of a great sex comedy from the decade in which it’s set, Can’t Hardly Wait. The kind of movie 20-somethings now will talk about 10 years from now and say, “Man, I almost forgot that Agent Coulson played the dad in that movie.”
As you might imagine, there are areas where such a film can run into trouble. There are moments when the nostalgia is too thick. There are moments when the cliches run amok. There are moments when the plot becomes oddly convoluted, notably during a late-film side plot involving the local swimming pool vs. the rich country club in a prank war. But it’s easier to miss a lot of imperfections with laughter-induced tears in your eyes. The To Do List is a film that barrels full speed ahead, resolute and comfortable in its weirdness, it’s raunchy moments and its confident message about sexuality. And thanks to its strong cast, we’re completely okay with being pushed into the pool.
The Upside: Aubrey Plaza has fantastic comedic timing, her supporting cast fills in nicely and the nostalgia-bang works.
The Downside: It’s got its convoluted moments, its cliche-ridden moments and its dead spots, just as you’d expect from any decent sex comedy.
On the Side: The thing that made Aubrey Plaza most uncomfortable while filming this movie: “Breathing is a private thing,” she told MTV News at Comic-Con. “You don’t want a bunch of people watching you breathe heavily.”