7/26/2013

Put it on the 'Maybe' List

The To Do List
(USA, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Maggie Carey
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg.
Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List. Photo courtesy eOne Films.
The To Do List, loosely inspired by the real-life adventures of first-time feature writer/director Maggie Carey, is a funny case of TMI. Set in the 1990s, for no good reason other than to provide a few good Beaches jokes, The To Do List sees class valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) studying to get her first big F. Brandy is a virgin, see, and boning up on all things naughty is atop her list of college prep chores. Getting one’s own pair of shower sandals isn’t nearly as important as prepping for freshman year’s biggest exam: sex ed.

Getting some tips from her proudly experienced sister, Amber (played by a surprisingly funny Rachel Bilson), and some pointers from her best friends (the hilarious pair of Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), Brandy makes a list of things to do before she dies a virgin. Atop that list is going all the way with Rusty Waters, a sexy college surfer-singer dude played by Scott Porter’s chiseled chest. The To Do List is Porky’s and American Pie blended with a girlish energy, but there’s enough of a ladyporn edge to provide R-rated laughs for girls and guys alike. Plaza is a winner as the shy nun who blossoms into the village bicycle as Brandy crosses off items on the list with spazzy spunkiness.

Referencing comedic classics like Caddyshack and contemporary raunch-fests like Superbad, The To Do List finds itself somewhere in the middle of the league of great American sex comedies. If The To Do List doesn’t go down as a classic of the genre—it could at least be an indie sleeper hit of the summer—audiences should at least appreciate its sisterly bond with other femme-centric summer comedies like this year’s The Heat and last summer’s winner Hope Springs (more on that below). The To Do List, like The Heat, is one of the few films this summer (and year) to feature a female filmmaker in a principle role behind the camera; moreover, it’s a rowdy story of a girl channelling her own sexual energy in a genre usually reserved for horny boys masturbating with dessert things. Brandy gets the popsicle in this one and she knows how to use it!

Carey thankfully avoids much of the whiny self-consciousness that seems to have become synonymous with feminism in the media since the onslaught of Lena Dunham. Carey has an uncontrived edge that’s much sunnier—and funnier—than that of Little Miss White Whine, so the laughs of The To Do List should reach beyond an audience raised on HBO. It’s broad humour, but The To Do List manages to hit a surprisingly sweet note during Brandy’s summer of unbridled debauchery.

If The To Do List deserves comparison to any sexy comedy of late, however, it might find an unexpected companion in last year’s warm sex[ish] comedy Hope Springs. Hope Springs put Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones on an awkward sexual adventure of rediscovering dormant love by snuggling up in the bedroom and connecting at the heart via some physical detours. There’s also that hysterical bit of seeing Meryl go down on Tommy Lee in a movie theatre. (It seems that the movie house handjob is a milestone of small town sexual awakening, but it’s too bad that Meryl’s Kay didn’t have time to read the note on Brandy’s to do list and learn that the key ingredient is butter.) The key ingredient in The To Do List, like Hope Springs, is that it doesn’t treat sex as simply physical pleasure or a check mark on the road to adulthood. Brandy’s quest, like Kay’s, is a trip of self-discovery and of gaining confidence with one’s body and with one’s appetite.

Hope Springs should be on any to do list for summer sex comedy viewing, while The To Do List at least deserves a spot in the “maybe” pile. Hope Springs might tell a similar story with more heart and humour, but The To Do List stretches its shtick well enough. If Hope Springs is for mom and dad, The To Do List should provide the same lesson under the guise of juvenile humour. The premise doesn’t always pay off as well as one hopes, for every other joke about the awkward fumbly girl hits a winner while half of them land with a thud. The To Do List isn’t a home run, but Plaza’s delightful, flat-out funny awkwardness at least brings it to second base.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The To Do List is now playing in wide release.