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Review: “The To Do List”

to do

Teen sex comedies are a staple of American cinema and have been since back in the proverbial day. They’ve changed with the times and become cyclically more and less raunchy, though lately it’s definitely been all the more. Through the various iterations on the themes, one constant has been that they are largely (and sometimes aggressively) male-centric. They’re almost always about some loser-ly dude trying to get laid or win the girl of his dreams while his jackass friends get into embarrassing scrapes themselves. This is why Maggie Carey’s new film The To Do List is so refreshing, simply by taking all the worn-out ideas and making them about female teenagers. Can you believe it? Girls wanting to have sex? It’s so scandalous! Actually, it’s very funny.

The film stars Aubrey Plaza as an over-achieving high school valedictorian who is so excited to go to college that she starts planning the second she graduates. She’s the first in her class at everything, and yet she gets made fun of constantly for being a virgin. Thing is, she doesn’t really care all that much about sex, despite her friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) trying to convince her it’s awesome. That is, until a party at which she meets a “dreamy” college guy named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who awakens her inner horn dog. But she’s so painfully inexperienced. Whatever will she do? Being who she is, she compiles a list of acts to accomplish during the summer so she’s fully prepared for college life, the final one being getting Rusty in the sack.

What makes The To Do List so enjoyable is how Plaza plays the character as a mixture of naïve and robotic. She literally has no clue about the male mind or even her own body, really, and watching her discover things from an analytical point of view is very enjoyable. It’s nice to see her playing a different type of character than she does (quite well, I hasten to add) on Parks and Recreation. Awkwardness is funniest when it’s delivered properly, and Plaza delivers it with aplomb. Several plombs, even. She at once has it together and is a complete wreck, and that’s a very funny place from which situations can arise.

The rest of the cast is truly excellent as well. Bill Hader plays Plaza’s boss at the local pool, and at first he seems like he’s going to just be the typical slovenly goon but he soon becomes sort of a big brother character. Rachel Bilson plays Plaza’s older sister, who is about to marry a loser played by Adam Pally. Bilson is great as the vapid, much more experienced one who is forever making fun of Plaza about things. Sibling bickering is always funny. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg play their parents, and they are hysterical. Gregg, as the incredibly repressed father who doesn’t want his daughters to even know what sex is, and Britton, as the sort of hip mom who is a lot more experienced in these things than her husband knows, play off of each other very well and are believable as a couple who’ve been together forever. Johnny Simmons gets the somewhat thankless task of being the nice guy who’s always been in love with Plaza’s character. He does a great job, but is often the butt of some of the humor. The rest of the cast includes appearances by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, and Jack McBrayer.

While the movie is very funny and mostly very enjoyable, there were a few sticking points. First of all, its set-up is very predictable. You pretty much know where it’s going from the first five minutes. Sure, there are bobs and weaves along the way, but the destination is seared into the very granite on which they stand from inciting incident forward. The characters generally fit into their archetypes for movies like this and rarely go outside them. While Plaza’s big speech at the end was not what you’d expect, the overall lesson she learned is. Also, the movie is set in the early ‘90s, and there really seems to be no reason for it beyond allowing the audience to laugh at the fashion, enjoy the soundtrack (which is great), and not question why nobody uses a cell phone. If it’s simply because the writer-director grew up in that time and wanted to share it, then there needed to be more of a use of the period setting. The premise works on its own without having to be put into an older time.

These nitpicks aside, The To Do List is a lot of fun. It’s not recommended you take a first date to it, though, unless you’re certain they’re cool about watching awkward sexual situations. Any other type of outing is perfectly acceptable.

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5 comments

  • Yes, the setting of the movie in the late-pre-internet-age of the early 1990’s is obviously a device which allows for it to be plausible for a young person to be forced to go out and actively investigate the meaning of a bunch of unknown sexual terms, rather than simply Google them.

  • I like that it’s set in the 90’s, today kids would just google some pictures and get scared off. Her naivety only works in the late 80’s early 90’s, after the ‘sexual revolution’, before the internet.

  • The period setting could very well be the writer writing what she knows. Can a 20-30 year old writer write what being a teenager is like in the 00’s?