Zipping along at a brisk pace — albeit one that feels like it’s rushing to be over — featuring dueling bromance buddy tales from both protagonists and villains, and mostly amusing in its vulgar humor and gags, the “action”-comedy “30 Minutes Or Less,” is entertaining, but ultimately only a mild effort in the mediocre R-Rated comedy sweepstakes that have dominated this season.
Based very loosely on a 2003 incident involving a pizza delivery man in Pennsylvania who had a bomb fastened around his neck (the real life tale ended way more tragically), “30 Minutes Or Less” is the speedy final film in this seemingly endless run of foul-mouthed R-rated flicks this summer. While it might not be the best — and quality-wise there’s no real major winner this summer aside from “Bridesmaids” which actually came out in the spring — it should be noted for its consistent tone (save for the last act) which is impressive given the disparate comedic styles of the principles and its visual punch. But while it does have its share of laughs, the picture doesn’t have much substantive meat to its characters at all, largely making for a forgettable experience.
The film starts out simply enough, as we follow Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a post-graduate pizza boy, as he makes deliveries, woos a former flame (Dilshad Vadsaria) and hangs out with his goofball best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari). Besides a somewhat troubled family situation, there’s not much reason given for Nick’s arrested development, but this isn’t the type of movie that’s interested in back story or subtext – it’s chief concern is sheer velocity. And on that note we toggle over to Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), two dirt-bags who have dreams of opening up a combination tanning salon/whorehouse. This is where the relatively simplistic plot gets playfully convoluted (as opposed to painfully convoluted) – Dwayne wants to murder his father, The Major (Fred Ward), in order to prematurely secure his inheritance, but doesn’t want to do it himself. At the urging of a sexy stripper named Juici (Bianca Kajlich), he gets the idea to hire an assassin. Except that he doesn’t have any money. So a harebrained scheme is hatched: they’ll kidnap a pizza delivery man, strap a bomb to him, and get him to rob a bank… thus securing their money for the assassin, who will then kill Dwayne’s father…
Lost yet? Well, don’t be. While the movie may delight in its own loop-de-loop narrative curlicues, it’s fairly linear and easy to follow. There are a few divergences, most notably featuring Chongo (Michael Peña), the ex-con and would-be killer that Dwayne unknowingly hires, but these are few and far between, and Peña, an undervalued comedy heavyweight, handily steals every scene he takes part in (and then some, he’s easily the funniest part of the film).
One of the risks in having a movie this loaded with comedic talent is that their differing styles of humor can badly collide with one another or, worse yet, simply cancel each other out. (Look no further than “Mystery Men,” the heavily hyped studio comedy whose overwhelming and conflicting comedy styles of its all-star principles left you with little more than a brightly colored headache). But director Ruben Fleischer, who helmed the similarly svelte “Zombieland” (also starring Eisenberg) knows how to balance out the comedic strengths of his leads – Eisenberg’s nervous stammer, Ansari’s motor-mouthed anxiousness, Swardson’s sweet stupidity, and McBride’s off-color shouting – which allows for a more expansive array of styles without them ever bumping into each other or getting lost in all that noise and F-bombs.
And yet, while’s it is a comedy (and therefore certain issues of narrative or believability matter less) there are still some problems in regards to suspension of disbelief and tone. Eisenberg, obviously a major notch about his counterpart, delivers comedy through the frightening reality of the situation — he has a bomb strapped to his chest and his sweaty, palpable anxiety creates his own brand of nervy laughs. Ansari on the other hand, still reacts to every situation as if he’s on a sitcom ostensibly believeing there’ll be a laugh track underneath him as a punch line for all his gags. Often times it’s as if the two actors are acting in two different movies and it feels as if the director is just giving his stars just too much leeway. Ultimately, it’s forgivable in the sense that, hell, it’s just a comedy, but there’s times you often wish Eisenberg were acting alongside a stronger actor.
The undoing of many of the bold R-rated ventures this summer is that they can’t maintain a workable tone for any prolonged amount of time, instead oscillating all over the place, usually in that awkward zone between sincerity and smarm, which leaves no one satisfied. “30 Minutes or Less,” however, strikes a nice balance early on, combining an amiable, if somewhat nasty, spiritedness with flashes of genuine danger and suspense (largely thanks to McBride’s inclusion in the cast – he always adds an element of edgy unpredictability).
Until it’s last act that is, which erupts with moments of startling violence. The climax in particular with its blazing flamethrowers, bullets flying and car chases, takes in a much darker tone and even borders on becoming serious. Oddly enough, it’s in the final act where the “action” finally arrives in this comedy and it’s where Fleischer feels most comfortable and at home. Dynamic visual tricks reminiscent of stylistic moments in “Zombieland” all of sudden appear and it feels as if the filmmaker has been biding his time the entire movie, just waiting for these sequences.
If there’s one semi-unique “twist” to the picture its that both the heroes (Eisenberg and Ansari) and the villains (McBride and Swardson) have friendship arcs that go all the way. Unfortunately, for the picture, it’s the McBride/Swardson, knucklehead, white-trash characters who receive the more satisfying conclusion to their stories. Then again, the comedy never takes much effort to convince you that Eisenberg and Ansari would actually ever be best friends and therefore their conflicts and resolutions never mean much which adds to the empty feeling inside.
As we mentioned, the film moves very fast, and by the time it somewhat abruptly concludes, the sensation sets in that the filmmakers (including screenwriter Michael Dilberti and producer Ben Stiller) have invested a lot of time and energy in what is essentially a well-photographed, terrifically funny, but ultimately insubstantial trifle. “30 Minutes or Less” may be the film’s title, but it’s also about as long as you’ll remember it for. But hey, it was fun while it lasted. [B-]
“30 Minutes Or Less” opens on August 12th.