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The To Do List

July 26, 2013
The To Do List

This seems to be the summer of the throwback teen comedy. Hot on the heels of the generally inoffensive The Way, Way Back comes the R-rated The To Do List. Though set in 1993 and trading heavily on twenty-year-old childhood memories, this is not the stylistic homage that The Way, Way Back was. Indeed, I can barely imagine a comedy like this being released back then.

Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the success-driven valedictorian of her high school in Boise, Idaho, like a less-grating version of Tracy Flick from Election. Rather than go to the all-nighter the Mormons have organized, her friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) drag her to a kegger, where she sees the gorgeous, guitar-playing Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Her sexuality suddenly awakened — and afraid that this will become an issue in college — she decides to tackle this problem the same way she does everything else: by studying. After all, she’s the sort of nerd who can’t help but correct her friends’ grammar, even when she’s “after-school special drunk”.

Brandy draws up a list of every sexual act whose name she can think of, even though she has no real idea what most of them are. Remember this is 1993, before the internet made every form of human depravity accessible at the click of a mouse. And of course the final item is sexual intercourse with Rusty himself. She takes a job at a community pool to help save up for a computer — a line item from yet another list — where Rusty just happens to work, and she starts working through the list with the unwitting help of the guy with a huge crush on her (Johnny Simmons), his lecherous friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a jock co-worker (Donald Glover), and even a passing grunge rocker (Andy Samberg).

But where, you might ask, are the parents. Surely a smart girl like Brandy would have had some sex-ed somewhere along the lines. Well, this is Boise in the early ’90s, and her father (Clark Gregg) is a Limbaugh-reading judge who thinks that her mother (Connie Britton) turned their older daughter, Amber (Rachel Bilson), into a slut by giving her The Talk at 15. So Brandy is pretty much left to friends, Cosmo, and back-issues of Penthouse as she boldly goes where she thinks most of her friends have gone before.

About half of the movie’s humor just comes from it being 1993. The skorts, the devil sticks, and the Trapper Keepers are all here. If you were born between 1970 and 1980 there’s plenty of nostalgia — both wanted and unwanted — packed into every frame. Oh, and the music; from the Gin Blossoms and the Spin Doctors to Naughty By Nature and 2 Live Crew, it plays like a greatest-hits of your high school life if you happen to be the right age. Writer/director Maggie Carey has a better memory for 1993 than some would want to retain.

The balance of the humor is all about squirming at one awkward situation after another. Plaza is good at playing them all pretty much as deadpan as she always does, though she’s smart to take off the sardonic edge that April Ludgate (from Parks and Recreation) uses as a weapon and Darius (from Safety Not Guaranteed) uses as a defense. That sort of ironic distance wouldn’t go very well with the sort of earnest, overweening aspiration that makes the whole ridiculous premise work.

In a vacuum, this is a pretty decent indecent comedy, at least for an audience of the right age. It’s got a serviceable plot with a decent arc, and more good female roles in one place than I’ve seen in a long time. The uphill battle it faces — other than the “right age” being about ten years older than the most sought-after demographic — is that it’s impossible not to compare this movie to The Way, Way Back. A teen summer coming-of-age (sorry) comedy with a major subplot playing out at a pool? And Bill Hader, one of my favorite comedic actors, pales in comparison with Sam Rockwell as the slovenly pool manager. I mean, he does great work, but it’s not remotely a fair fight.

So, especially if you were born in the ’70s, The To Do List should be on your to-see list. For all its awkward prurience, it’s good to be reminded that the girls were (and are) just as clueless and self-conscious as the boys, especially for women who never get to see themselves portrayed in the mass media. Besides, it’s better than most R-rated comedies out there, even if it did pick the wrong summer to come out.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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