Directed by Maggie Carey
Written by Maggie Carey
The amount of time it takes to exhaust the goodwill one has accrued towards an overqualified and bursting ensemble cast is roughly 70 minutes, if The To Do List is any indication. The film’s high concept and its performers, from Aubrey Plaza to Connie Britton to Alia Shawkat to Clark Gregg, are enough to engender some interest for a while, but eventually, The To Do List peters out, squandering away its likability on a strange, ballsy-for-being-irresponsible message and a muddled third act.
Plaza is Brandy Klark, a cartoonish overachiever who just graduated from her Boise, Idaho high school as its valedictorian, even though most of the kids in her class mock her for her uptight nature and her virginity. Before she heads off to Georgetown University, Brandy is encouraged by her best friends to change up her life sexually, so she sets up to lose her virginity to a local rock-star-like lifeguard (Scott Porter). But first, Brandy figures that she needs some practice in other intimate matters, thus inspired to create the eponymous list and cross off all kinds of sexual activities, thanks in part to local boys who are more than happy to help her on her quest, despite not knowing her ulterior motive.
The To Do List is consistent only in wanting very badly to be raunchy and wacky, almost a high-school version of The 40-Year Old Virgin, as Brandy’s friends (Shawkat and Sarah Steele) and sister (Rachel Bilson) giddily mock her for not having gone all the way before going to college. And while Brandy is indeed an exceptionally awkward teenager, comically honest to her parents and nitpicky enough to correct a person’s grammar even when they’re trying to stick their tongue down her throat, she’s more enervating than endearing. Brandy’s lack of awareness of the world around her should be charming, and Plaza’s proven on Parks and Recreation that she’s an enormously gifted comic performer. But Brandy’s oblivious nature only serves to make her an inert, flat protagonist. Though she lusts after that lifeguard, it’s clear that her nerdy friend (Johnny Simmons) has eyes for her. When she expresses shock at the notion, after a series of sexual exploits with him, it’s hard not to wonder if Brandy has short-term memory loss.
The story gets in the way of The To Do List, which is at its best—unfortunately not often enough—when writer-director Maggie Carey just lets her cast riff on 1990s-era nostalgia and sex. Plaza, Porter, Shawkat, Bill Hader, Simmons, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Donald Glover are too winning for this movie to be a total bust, even if each scene offers an opportunity for laughter as well as a stumble or two. At barely 105 minutes, and with so many people popping up for a scene or two, The To Do List teases more than it pays off on its comic promise. As one example, Glover’s fellow Derrick Comedy troupe members, Dominic Dierkes and D.C. Pierson, are credited in the opening, but are literally on screen in one shot and have no lines of dialogue. They’ve got good agents to get that credit, but seeing them stranded, when they may have had scenes on the cutting room floor, is a bitter pill. The same could be said for Britton and Gregg, as Brandy’s parents; in their few scenes, both are quite enjoyable, partly because who can say no to Connie Britton and Clark Gregg? Considering their talents, and how important Brandy’s parents presumably would be to her sexual awakening, even if it’s to meddle in her goals, the two are criminally underused.
The To Do List, essentially, feels like a group of sketches all centered around the main concept, too scattershot and messy to be a true movie. In one late scene, the pool at which Brandy’s working is vandalized by the scoundrels at a rival country club. The scene is surprisingly educational, as it’s the first time we’re informed of the country club’s existence, let alone some half-cocked rivalry. The country club exists as a plot point to further exacerbate how aloof and selfish Brandy has become in her search of sexual gratification; because it only appears in this fashion, never naturally mentioned beforehand, it contributes to a leaden, misguided third act. Emphasizing that teenagers treat sex more seriously than they should may make sense after watching an anal-retentive lead treat sex as if it’s the SAT, but as a message to take into real life, it’s strange at best, inappropriate at worst.
The To Do List isn’t all bad, because a movie starring Aubrey Plaza, Donald Glover, Connie Britton, Alia Shawkat, Scott Porter, and more can’t be. A great cast, however, does not cure all cinematic ills, and this one can’t elevate themselves far enough above the shaky material. There are laughs strewn about The To Do List, drops of water in an arid landscape. When laughs don’t suffice, there’s a ton of gross-out gags, but going for a reaction of disgust is less palatable than going for a reaction of humor and recognition. The To Do List tries to look back at early-1990s America as an era of silly hedonism; that hedonism just doesn’t add up to a whole lot.
— Josh Spiegel