3.5/5 (4 if not for a grueling a Capella moment!)
Three seconds was all it took for the opening music to establish The To Do List as an overflow of enough teen movie gag execution to hide just how deep the pool is. Upon the last credits scrolling away, it may require second viewings of this breakthrough vehicle for Aubrey Plaza to find out if there was something or many things I missed.
How do I sum this up? A public insult to her identity causes main character Brandy Klark to embark on a personal quest to seek satisfaction in personal stature that will lead her through countless, grave objectives and encounter numerous figures that will advance and hamper her success. Please scroll back up and re-read the title if this synopsis is difficult to figure out.
Set in the early 1990s, the film’s opening credits cast a hook suggesting that I was in for two hours of pure nostalgia. The loving portrait of a Hilary Clinton still not familiar, the odd lips phone, the prints of grunge icons within countless bedrooms; they all suggest the spirit of the times, but something’s not right. It seems limited and distant, as if the hijinks that come meant for such references to be a memory ripe for ridicule over its awkwardness and parody. Is it homage or is it a shot at Hollywood’s story regurgitation? Slightly helpful in pointing to an answer is the revelation that yes, much of the “teen” cast was chosen for being near thirty (at least according to IMDB trivia). Meanwhile, the haziness of such nostalgia was implied on at least one occasion, with anachronisms intentionally repeated so that it wasn’t forgotten (hint: Jerry Maguire). It could be both, but that’s the call of the cast and crew.
Having played the best comic foil among Scott Pilgrim versus the World’s several, Aubrey Plaza at last takes command of an ensemble film that is unbound in outrageousness but barely outrage-inducing in its boundaries (aside from one too many shoves into the pool suffered by Brandy; oh, AND one cruel surf of the spectrum from, how I can phrase it without too much spoiled, Bill Murray to Pasolini). Through it all, the impressive delivery is how Brandy doesn't allow for esteem emergencies to shake up (into hysterics, save for punch line response on one occasion) her intellectual drive to interpret and discover the means of accomplishment. In other words, it was pure woman-in-charge attitude front and center, especially with ten to fifteen of the most frenzied yet hilarious seconds of siblings scuffling I've ever seen on a theater screen. This maturation fulfillment turns out to be the writing on the wall for the main supporting characters, with Bill Hader’s pool manager slob best clarifying by the end that there’s always an improvement to be made and a future to look forward to (as if parodying Home Improvement’s Wilson wasn't enough).
Elsewhere in the cast, Clark Gregg elevates from The Avengers’ soft-spoken Coulson to a high tension father figure/judge who may be lacking in the emotional stability expressed by his family. Rachel Bilson is the savage elder sister who allows for brief parity when similar predicaments come to a head (spoiler # 3925: pun intended). Rounding out the primary support are Connie Britton, fellow Scott Pilgrim alum Johnny Simmons as a perfectly-timed real emotional wreck, and the pairing of Sarah Steele and Alia Shawkat to complete Brandy’s BFF triangle.
Eh, may as well keep in theme with the movie. So what teen sex comedy failed to escape death by lampoon in this feature length directorial debut for Maggie Carey? The checklist begins. The house party predicaments back dropping not set for college desperation in American Pie, Superbad and (available at Family Video, probably) 18-Year-Old Virgin are there. So is the summertime employment chaos of Adventureland, this time maxed in gross rudeness and minute in sentimentality (the latter is there, but even that is sapped with sarcasm). Then there’s the familial and peer dysfunction that is gratuitous enough to bring Sixteen Candles and She’s All That to mind. Even the abstinence-leaning deadpan of Napoleon Dynamite seems profaned (in a good way) by the opening credits, Brandy’s exploratory transition from start to finish, and Idaho as a setting!
At plus 100 minutes, The To Do List is a smirk-repeating reflection not on the distant past, but on the everyday confusion and steadfastness in building a sound state of mind despite the dilemmas that open up from such decisions and the chaos surrounding their resolution. Almost all of Brandy’s personal endeavors are in no way flubbed introductory lines and walking into the wrong room commonplace with any of Molly Ringwald’s “Big Three” characters. They’re more equivalent as two hours to Jamie Lee Curtis losing grip of the bedpost and jumping right back up. The cast does all it can to relieve her of carrying the humor for each, but thanks to the contrast between Aubrey’s blank looks and sharp vocal barbs, the dialogue exchange brewed a humored uproar even when shared with the support extras. The To Do List perhaps aims to be an evolutionary step in adolescent comedy’s smartness and predictability deterrence, but that’s too soon to confirm. For now, I’ll just consider it the testing of waters by a long-established supporting actress ready to venture further up the list as a comedic marquee name.