American movies showcase death and destruction as much as ever, but it’s no easy task to find a well-scripted potty mouth. The raunchy antics of horny teens enjoyed a heyday in the early eighties with the likes of “Porky’s” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” movies that tapped into the joy of young people so eager to exploit their bodily urges that their innocence was infectious.
Since then, the first entry in the “American Pie” franchise has remained the modern exemplar of the genre, while movies as a whole have grown tamer. The comedies directed and produced by Judd Apatow have certainly upped the ante for mainstream dick jokes, and the infamous pipe sex in “Tiny Furniture” introduced a much needed feminine angle to the humorous possibilities of awkward copulation, which writer-director Lena Dunham carried over to HBO’s “Girls.” But these recent examples deal with sex as part of a larger equation of events rather than placing them at the center of the narrative.
“The To Do List,” by contrast, exclusively revolves around a young woman’s quest to learn every key aspect of intercourse before heading off to college in 1993. The story is divided into chapters based around various naughty activities on her eponymous agenda. At the same time, writer-director Maggie Carey maintains the airy, blasé feel of mainstream entertainment, pulling off a combination that in contrast to today’s conservative standards feels downright radical. It smuggles obscenities into pop culture vernacular with a goofy grin.
Things start off a little shaky with the establishment of preppy college-bound Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) when her valedictorian speech is interrupted by heckling classmates, one of whom hollers, “get off the stage, virgin!” In a Todd Solondz movie, such an aside might cynically play up the sad truth of being a smart pariah; in a Todd Phillips movie, it would be a juvenile quip.
However, it turns out that this seemingly trivial opener actually sets the plot in motion: Moments later, Brandy learns from her older sis (Rachel Bilson) that she needs to have some experience under her belt — so to speak — before hitting the hedonistic world of dorm life. Thus the list: a roundup of sex acts divided into color-coded categories that she hopes to satisfy over the course of her summer job at the local swimming pool, culminating with going all the way.
Setting her sights on cartoonishly brawny pool boy Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she practices her first few tricks on innocent pal Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who naturally falls for her and then feels crushed when she branches out to other targets. In premise alone, “The To Do List” contains some mild similarities to the 2010 Emma Stone vehicle “Easy A,” in which Stone’s character merely pretended to turn into the school’s village bicycle. In “The To Do List,” however, Brady grabs the bike’s handlebars and takes control, egged on by her amusingly carefree friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, in colorful turns on par with their equivalents from male-centered teen movies like “Superbad”).
Carey casts her heroine’s mission in contrast to the buttoned-up adult world, which suffers from its own problems: Bill Hader (the filmmaker’s real-life husband) does some of his best post-“Saturday Night Live” screen acting as the lazy pool boss willing to haze his new hire but strangely aghast at her blossoming sexuality; the efforts of her frantic dad (Clark Gregg) to keep her away from the ills of experimentation smartly poke at the roots of sexual repression in strict family values.
There’s a lot of familiar ground here. In “Adventureland” and this summer’s “The Way Way Back,” disillusioned teens have worked through their issues in the weeks leading up to college by taking on quirky summer jobs. However, Carey’s wacky sensibilities retain a notably fresh quality by using the same framing device as an excuse to bat around one funny idea after another. The story transcends the derivative scenario through a noticeable lack of verbal censorship.
This joyful approach to the pleasures of the flesh has been a part of the movies since their inception, and yet we’ve been largely deprived of the ability to enjoy it. Whenever sex serves the story, it faces harsh scrutiny. (See: The cavalcade of objectification claims leveled against recent Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which features a prolonged lesbian sex scene to underscore the depth of the bond between its two leads.) “The To Do List” manages to skirt by because it makes the sex jokes innocuous. One gets the sense that “The Lubitsch Touch,” named for classic screwball comedy Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to smuggle innuendo into his films, has some DNA on this picture.
Carey’s celebratory approach to bawdy one-liners marries form with content. From a John Water-esque scatological gag to a freeze frame capturing a post-blowjob spit, “The To Do List” imbues its punchlines with a liberated sensibility. After she gets caught by an elder at the tail end of the aforementioned fellatio who asks her what she would’ve done if she hadn’t been busted, Brady shoots back, “I probably would’ve swallowed.”
The movie’s ribald dialogue derives a fair amount of energy from its female perspective. “Porky’s” and its ilk are boys’ fantasies above all else; “The To Do List,” by the nature of its plot, finds Brady taking control. “I am not a quitter,” she declares during a heated masturbation session. Certainly Plaza, who deserves major kudos for taking on such a mischievous role, must have been thinking the same thing.
Since “The To Do List” takes place in the early nineties, it involves the antics of the last teen generation to grow up in a pre-internet age. It’s refreshing to watch a movie in which text messages never intrude on the exposition. Everything is advanced by talk. Despite a few cheeky attempts to play up the nostalgia element, “The To Do List” could have been made during the time when it takes place. In the movie’s chief irony, Carey finds a spark of progressive comedy by turning back the clock.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? CBS Films releases “The To Do List” today. Decent reviews and a lack of major box office competition as the summer approaches its third month may help the movie perform decently nationwide, although it’s most likely to become a sleeper hit compared to the big tentpoles in theaters now.