the to do list reviewCBS Films


There's a long and storied history of movies depicting young men who are desperate to lose their virginity. These movies were incredibly popular in the '80s, when mainstream Hollywood was awash in bawdy teenage tales (such classics or, um, "classics" as "Porky's" and "Losin' It"), and have shown sporadic popularity ever since ("American Pie" and its ilk being a more recent example).

But the momentous act of cherry popping is something that can be enjoyed (or painfully suffered through until it's quickly over) by both sexes. And just because the male gender is the one typically seen on a mission to lose their virginity, doesn't mean ladies have to be looked over forever.

Enter "The To Do List," the new film by writer/director Maggie Carey, that stars Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader (Carey's real-life husband), Alia Shawkat, Andy Samberg, Clark Gregg, Connie Britton, and Johnny Simmons. In it, Plaza plays an uptight nerd who is desperate to experience a gamut of sexual acts (including the big shebang) before she leaves for college. But should you be interested in a long term relationship with the movie, or is it better suited as a one-night stand? Read on to find out!

1. It Has a Really Incredible Title Sequence
The movie lets you know its tone right off the bat -- it's an elaborate, old-school title sequence set to 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" (a song built around a sample, any hip-hop nerd or movie freak can tell you, from Stanley Kubrick's immortal antiwar masterpiece "Full Metal Jacket"). It's fun and bouncy and a little bit filthy, and sets the stage perfectly for the movie to follow. If the rest of the movie had maintained the sequence's energy level and sense of focus, then it would have really turned out well.

2. It's Set in 1993
Few movies have been set in the 1990s (aside from that awful Ben Kingsley movie "The Wackness"), it's such a recent piece of history, but "The To Do List" makes a case for it. Primarily, one of the central jokes of the movie is that Plaza has no idea what these different sex acts are so she has to either try and research them in an old-school, "All the President's Men" fashion, or she has to go out and attempt them on her own (which she does). The mere presence of Google would have turned the movie into a vibrantly colored short film, nothing more. A lack of technology means additional obstacles and more character. Plus, jokes about skorts are always appreciated.

3. It's Pretty Filthy
At an early screening that we attended, director Carey said the movie was inspired by a spectacularly awful hand job she gave in high school. There's all that and the kitchen sink in "The To Do List," and while it plays fairly loose with specifics (there's not a shred of nudity -- not a single bared areola), it is also agreeably filthy. What's more is that it doesn't seem to be some kind of gender-constructed game of one-upsmanship, like the Cameron Diaz movie "The Sweetest Thing," where the ladies feel they have to be more vulgar in order to compete with the dudes. Things feel very natural and real, and it's refreshing to see women crave physical affection as much as their male counterparts. Girl power!

4. Aubrey Plaza Is Dynamite
If you already know Aubrey Plaza from her role on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" or her appearances in various comedies (she was also a voice in this summer's terrific "Monsters University"), then chances are that you knew it was only a matter of time before she broke through to mainstream stardom. This is that moment. She is surly and sweet, but also sexy. She basically is playing a girl in your high school class who was so smart and sure of yourself that she was hopelessly intimidating and unapproachable. It's a performance that's totally fearless, and part of the joke is that Plaza (and all of the other actors) are so clearly not teenagers. It makes things slightly safer but still, she is tapping into real adolescent awkwardness and she is totally hilarious.

5. The Supporting Cast Is Equally Awesome
Plaza is surrounded by a veritable all-star cast willing to go the extra, ridiculous mile. Hader plays Plaza's boss at a local public swimming pool (get ready for a "Caddyshack" poo joke!), Clark and Britton are Plaza's parents, and, in a surprisingly wonderful callback to her work on "The OC," Rachel Bilson plays Plaza's promiscuous older sister. This summer has been pretty Bilson-filled, between the sequence in "The Bling Ring" (one of the year's very best movies, any way you slice it), when the titular thieves loot her home, and her great performance in "The To Do List." We say "yay" for Bilson. The rest of the cast (people like Samberg, Donald Glover, Adam Pally, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), are little more than glorified walk-ons, but they max out their minimal amount of screen time.

6. It's Sometimes Painfully Evident How Cheap the Movie Is
It's always hard to do period detail on an indie movie budget, but the year was 1993. Most of us have stuff in our closet older than that, so it shouldn't have been that hard to arrange things. The filmmakers do a valiant effort of creating, if not the specifics of 1993, then the general feeling of 1993 -- one of hopeful, Clinton-inspired optimism (Plaza has a photo of Hilary on her desk that she is constantly gazing towards for inspiration and guidance).

7. For a Sex Comedy, It's Surprisingly Subversive
You sort of expect "The To Do List" to hit the same story beats and emotional arcs of the typical sex comedy, regardless of the gender of the lead. Whenever "The To Do List" threatens to zig, it abruptly zags, and it's so great when it does. It's impossible to talk about the specifics without giving away some of the movie's best surprises, but just know that this doesn't go where you think it's going to. It should also be applauded for being "sex positive" -- this is a boundlessly positive movie, in which sex is seen as a silly, funny, intermittently wonderful part of growing up. It's not the titanic event that even Plaza makes it out to be. "The To Do List" is wonderful because the lead character may place undo importance on losing your virginity, but the movie never does. It is what it is. (And the movie is totally "sex positive," for people who care about such things.)

8. It's Too Long
We might have seen a slightly longer version of the movie (it was supposedly not the final final edit), but even if you trimmed ten minutes it would still feel unnecessarily draggy. This is a problem with most movies this summer. It's not the bloated, two-and-a-half hours of "Lone Ranger," but it still feels longer than it should, especially for this kind of thing (maybe if they had cut down on the reaction shots from the stationary Hilary Clinton photo).

9. Sadly, It's Never as Funny as You Want It to Be...
Still, for all its virtues (and really, there are a whole bunch), "The To Do List" is never as funny or filthy as it should be. You can feel it getting there, but there's always a punch pulled or a joke that falls flat, right at the last minute. This might be our singular opinion -- the regular folks recruited for the screening were falling all over themselves laughing. It's just that there's so much that's great about "The To Do List" that you wish it could pull through. A couple of changes and it could have been a total classic. Sadly, it's just "very good" instead of "great."

10. ...Still, It's Funnier Than Most Studio Comedies This Summer
At one billion times the budget, most of the studio comedies don't have as many laughs as "The To Do List" (and that's without factoring in the movie's progressive politics, sense of period, and charm factor). "The Internship," "The Hangover Part III," "R.I.P.D," "The Heat," "Grown Ups 2," these all seem like lame confections compared to the genuine warmth of "The To Do List." After all, it's not the size that matters.

Aubrey Plaza on The To Do List: