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Review: ‘The To Do List’ Starring Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader & Alia Shawkat

Review: 'The To Do List' Starring Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader & Alia Shawkat

For those of us who came of age in the ’90s it has not been uncommon to notice a certain nostalgia creeping up on you these last few years. At first maybe you were happy to revisit some old songs or movies you hadn’t heard/seen in a while but before you knew it, pop culture artifacts you didn’t particularly even care for at the time seemed to bring back fond memories of a decade that now seems oh so far away (Gin Blossoms were actually a pretty good band, you guys). The new sex comedy “The To Do List,” is set distinctively in the summer of 1993 and is one of the first films to transport us back to the pre-internet age of Coolio and “Clueless.” If it seems too soon to start thinking about the ’90s as a period piece, consider this: “Dazed and Confused” was set in 1976 and released in 1993 which means that we’re now further from 1993 (when “The To Do List” is set) today than we were from the distance in Richard Linklater‘s stoner, coming-of-age classic. Yes, it’s time to be nostalgic about the ’90s.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, an A student, valedictorian and part-time lifeguard; she’s a knowledgeable, smart-as-a-whip overachiever, but the one area in life she’s completely ignorant in is sex. Not only is she a virgin, but she’s completely clueless about even the most basic of sexual acts. Having endured the taunts of her friends after her graduation speech, Brandy decides she’d like to remedy the problem of her sexual inexperience before heading off to college. Alerted to the freewheeling terrain of dorm life by her very sexually-active sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), the nerdy and pragmatic Brandy sets out to solve things the only way she knows how: by making a list of every sexual activity she’s ever heard of, with plans to check off each one before the summer is over. Encouraged by her best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), Brandy tags along to a party where she spies dim hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), and decides that he’s the one she wants to lose her V-card to. In order to keep from embarrassing herself with amateurishness, she aims to check-off all the secondary items off the list before going all the way with Rusty. Of course there are complications along that rite of passage as close boy friend (but not boyfriend) Cameron (Johnny Simmons) harbors a secret crush and Brandy eventually learns that the experiences she’s having aren’t particularly extraordinary if they’re not shared with someone special. 

Along the way she still has a colorful parade of partners including Andy Samberg as the Eddie Vedder-esque singer of a grunge band, Donald Glover (with an era-appropriate flat-top), Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bill Hader, her boss at the pool who dispenses a lot of not-so-sage advice. As if the ensemble could not be any more stacked, her parents are played by Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Plaza, best known for her droll performance as April Ludgate from “Parks And Receation,” takes on a much more type-A character here. Instead of going full Tracy Flick, the actress fuses Brandy with her dry, understated sensibility, and as with last year’s underrated and under seen “Safety Not Guaranteed” it’s another good vehicle for the young comedienne’s particular talents. 

Writer/director Maggie Carey has assembled an impressive cast for her feature debut — though she has worked with both Plaza and Hader (also her husband) before on a 2007 web series. That said, it doesn’t quite live up to the caliber of the talent involved, but is still a mostly enjoyable coming-of-age story. The film had been in post-production for quite some time (we first reported on it back in 2010 when it was titled “The Hand Job” and it was selected as one of our Most Anticipated Films of 2012) and remains a little rough around the edges. The constant nostalgia references are a bit much, some of the jokes are corny, not all of them land well and tonally it is a bit wobbly, but the sweetness at the core of the film eventually shines through regardless.
“The To Do List” fully indulges in some of the kitschy aspects of that era— it’s less “Clueless” and more “TGIF“— with a colorful credits sequence and soundtrack featuring all of the rap (2 Live Crew, Naughty By Nature, Salt ‘N Pepa) and rock (The Cranberries, Mazzy Star) that would be essential on any ’90s mix tape, in addition to a parade of terrible outfits and worse hairdos. These are probably the kinds of things that would have been tempered down in a studio comedy and that’s what makes them so welcome here. But what really sets this film apart from nearly every other teenage sex comedy ever made, from “Porky’s” to “American Pie” to “Superbad,” is that this isn’t about some dude trying to get laid.

You may not realize until you’re watching “The To Do List” how refreshing it is just to see this story told from the female perspective. The situations may be familiar but the voice feels fresh. Carey has said the film was based loosely on her experiences and though much of the film hums along very much in the mold of those other comedies, it also makes time for narrative detours that show the filmmaker is drawing from something other than just other movies. Though not as polished as some of the aforementioned touchstones of the sub-genre, the film nevertheless possesses a shaggy appeal that should help it connect with the audience it deserves. [B]

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