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Saturday, March 8, 2014

The To-Do List

Small week, not a good week. This is probably the week to catch up on those great Awards season movies (and don't you dare miss the under-represented Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr Banks) and leave the new releases for next week.

First up, this week's Channel 24 review, which is basically a gender-flipped sub-American-Pie sex comedy. 

What it's about

Brandy Klark, a bookish school valedictorian decides that it wouldn't do to enter college as a virgin so she draws up a “to do list” of the various sexual acts she wants to experience during her summer vacation between the end of high school and the beginning of college. At the top of her list is having sex for the first time with a hunky but immensely stupid guitarist.

What we thought

In the middle of a cast filled with TV stalwarts, The To Do list features Modern Family's young Nolan Gould but those of us who are used to seeing him as an awkward teenager may be surprised to see just how young he is here. Despite being released relatively recently in the US, the very pre-pubescent Gould confirms that the film was actually shot a good four or five years ago and has been sitting on the shelf ever since. Sadly, it's not that hard to see why.

Some of my fellow critics – certainly my fellow South African colleagues – have really taken against the film, going so far as it call it “by far the worst film of the year so far,” but it really isn't anything of the sort. It was barely even the third worst movie I saw the week it was press screened. It's your average crappy teen sex comedy but if it's any worse than that, it's simply because the talent involved makes it something of a genuine disappointment.

This is writer/ director Maggie Carey's first feature film so she was obviously an unknown quantity but the cast is filled with a metric ton of largely comedic actors that have done great work in the past. And, despite the material, they still elevate the film far beyond the truly dire levels of, say, those awful American Pie knockoffs.

The Klark family, in particular come off particularly well. Aubrey Plaza is terrific in Parks and Recreation and she makes for a likable lead as our smart but woefully naïve heroine, Brandy Klark. Rachel Bilson was always the best thing about the soapy teen dramedy The OC and as the foul-mouthed, sexually-charged older sister, she is easily one of the best things about the To Do List too. As the girls' embarrassing parents, Clark Gregg and Connie Britton all but steal the show with their own, very awkward sexual escapades and uncomfortably hands-on parenting.

Sadly, the rest of the cast are used less well with only Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat and Scott Pilgrim's Johnny Simmongs getting much to do, while other fantastically funny people like Donald Glover (Community) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick Ass) spend most of their time on the sidelines. Still, they do perfectly OK even with the small amount of screen time given them. People like Andy Samberg and Bill Hader do rather less well but they're pretty sporadic performers anyway.

Regardless of how much or how little screen time the individual actors had, with this much comedic talent in front of the cameras, The To Do List really should have been a lot funnier than it was. A LOT funnier. Sure, the story is something we've seen way too often and the film can never seem to make up its mind if it wants to be a gross-out sex comedy (yes, there's shit eating and yes it's as pointlessly gross and lame as you expect) or something with a more indie spirit that has something to say about how coldly clinical casual sex can be but its biggest sin by far is that is simply isn't anywhere near as funny as it needs to be. It has some chuckles but nowhere near enough to justify its crasser, not to mention more generic, moments.

Maggie Carey may well do something interesting in the future but, if the To Do List is any indication, perhaps starting her filmmaking career with a racy sex-comedy wasn't exactly the wisest of decisions.

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