After you’ve seen The To Do List, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:
The To Do List sounded so good on paper: A raunchy female-centric comedy, written and directed by a woman (the improv comic and writer Maggie Carey in her feature-film debut) and starring Parks and Recreation’s deadpan ingénue Aubrey Plaza as a high school virgin looking to complete a checklist of sexual escapades before she leaves for college in the fall. But though I went in more than ready to laugh—I even forced myself to chuckle aloud in some early scenes in an attempt to prime the laughter pump, which is never a good sign—this thin, floppy comedy never quite became the high-spirited summer sex romp it clearly set out to be.
I haven’t quite figured out yet why The To Do List doesn’t work, when so many elements within it seem to. The friendship between Plaza’s goody-two-shoes heroine, Brandy Klark, and her two less uptight besties (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) is observantly sketched and often touching. So is Brandy’s relationship with her besotted “study buddy,” the equally virginal Cameron (Johnny Simmons). And SNL’s Bill Hader (also, as it happens, the filmmaker’s husband) is intermittently affecting as the wisdom-dispensing pothead manager of the Boise, Idaho community pool where Brandy works as a lifeguard. I think this movie’s failure to cohere can be attributed to two factors: 1) insufficient joke density—the reliance on one funny idea or line to carry an entire scene—and 2) the casting (and, I regret to say, performance) of Aubrey Plaza in the lead role.
We’ll leave aside the fact that the 29-year-old Plaza is at least a decade too old to be playing a high school senior, since there is a venerable tradition of twentysomething actors being “aged down” for teen parts. But the persona Plaza’s created in past roles, and that she seems in danger of getting trapped inside, is that of an unflappable, sardonic outsider, a live-action Daria. Cast as an earnest, literal-minded, sexually repressed valedictorian with a framed photo of Hillary Clinton on her desk, Plaza has an emotionally muffled quality. We believe in the genuineness of Brandy’s dogged devotion to completing her list, but we rarely get a glimpse of the underlying emotions that would have made her create the list in the first place: curiosity, competitiveness, longing, lust. As played by Plaza (and written by Carey), Brandy is neither particularly likable nor particularly interesting, so that as her sexual conquests pile up through the long, hot summer of 1993, we get progressively less invested in each one.
That this movie takes place in the summer of 1993 is not insignificant. Many of its jokes depend on the affectionately nostalgic, impressively detailed production and costume design: There are high-waisted denim skorts, Fresh Prince overalls, and large posters of Jeff Goldblum looking sexy. The period soundtrack can be amusing—especially in a scene where Brandy and her best friends mend a rift by spontaneously belting “The Wind Beneath My Wings”—but “ha, can you believe we really liked this crap once?” only goes so far as a joke setup. Many of The To Do List’s jokes have this first-draft, is-that-all-there-is? quality. The actors playing Brandy’s family—Rachel Bilson as her slutty older sister, Clark Gregg as her conservative father, and Connie Britton as her touchy-feely, sexually frank mother—each get a few mildly funny scenes, but all of them, Britton and Gregg especially, seem to be gearing up for a big comic payoff that never comes. Even The To Do List’s emotional arcs feel somehow truncated. At the end of Brandy’s long summer of methodical sexual exploration, she’s supposed to have learned a lesson or two—sex is best with someone you truly care about, movie-theater popcorn butter works as an emergency hand-job lubricant—but we never get the sense that her path to erotic self-discovery was engaging, arousing, or fun. It certainly wasn’t for us.