"The To Do List" Checks The Necessary Boxes, Checks Out

“The To Do List” is little more than an “American Pie” clone from the female perspective, even lifting that series’ unofficial theme song, “Laid” by 90s alt rock act James, for use during its – ahem – climax. This particular brand of cinematic ribaldry is nothing new, leaving “The To Do List” no choice but to take its bawdiness as far as its R-rating will allow, to decidedly mixed results. The film is exceptionally raunchy, but its general lewdness doesn’t translate to a high volume of laughs, leaving its gifted cast to tread water for much of the picture’s running time.

The inimitably droll Aubrey Plaza is terrific on NBC’s “Parks And Recreation,” but acting as a supporting player on a single-camera, 22-minute comedy is a long way from carrying a 90-minute feature. Here she stars as 18 year-old Brandy Klark, the virginal valedictorian of her high school class. Brandy suddenly decides that her sexual inexperience is unacceptable for any incoming college freshman, and begins to compile a checklist of sexual conquests that she’ll tackle over the summer.

The extensive cast includes Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”) and Sarah Steele (“Spanglish”) as Brandy’s two best friends, Scott Porter (“Friday Night Lights”) as Rusty Waters, the cartoonishly masculine object of her affection, and Johnny Simmons (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) as Cameron, the sweet, unassuming, nerdy kid that she obviously should be with. Rachel Bilson (“The O.C.), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad”), Donald Glover (“Community”), and “Saturday Night Live” vets Bill Hader and Andy Samberg all show up in supporting roles.

Set during the summer of 1993 in Boise, Idaho, the pic is heavy on 90s nostalgia, to the point that a large percentage of the film’s jokes are some kind of pop culture nod. From the oddly lifeless opening credits, it’s clear that writer-director Maggie Carey is going to lean heavily on Hillary Clinton references, day-glo colored remnants of late 80s fashion trends, and a soundtrack full of Gin Blossoms and MC Hammer. The era immediately becomes such a major part of the film’s identity that it renders the entire first act one-note. And it’s a note that grates. We get it. The 90s were weird.

Thankfully, with the beginning of the second act some genuine laughs emerge, the film waking from a Bubble-Tape induced coma. Donald Glover makes a sizeable impact with just a few minutes of screen time, while Johnny Simmons steals nearly every scene he’s in, his morose, would-be suitor act prying laughs from some very middling dialogue. Bill Hader is always reliable, and as the head lifeguard to Brandy’s rookie pool-cop, he’s able to bring a sense of wisdom and – dare I say it – gravitas to the proceedings. His character is a burnout, sure, but his world-weariness provides hope that not all of the picture’s stupid teenager archetypes are doomed to lives of immaturity.

Plaza is adequate as Brandy, but she doesn’t have the panache to sell some of the bigger gross out moments – but then again, neither did Jason Biggs, and “American Pie” was a sizeable critical and commercial hit. Plaza has culled a low-key persona throughout her career so far, so she’s in a tough spot here. If she were to stick to her own brand of quiet sarcasm, Brandy wouldn’t be worthy of carrying a short, let a lone a feature. But if she decided to betray her own sensibilities and go way over the top, she’d risk losing what it is that makes her Aubrey Plaza. She ends up compromising between the two – probably the best of three bad options – keeping her schtick intact but leaving her future as a leading lady in doubt.

Ultimately, “The To Do List” settles for being intermittently amusing, never living up to the promise of its talented cast. Despite pushing the boundaries of its R-rating, it’s surprisingly low on risks – and thus low on rewards – doing little to shake up the sex comedy formula. The pic projects a sense of contentedness, as if its creators were happy with themselves just for constructing a female-oriented romp that’s not a carbon copy of its forefathers. Except, it kind of is.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 26, 2013
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Maggie Carey
Screenwriter: Maggie Carey
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language – all involving teens)