July 28, 2013

The To Do List

In The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza plays a recent high school graduate named Brandy. She’s the valedictorian, the “nerd”, the girl who knows when to use “whom” and not “who” but has almost no sexual knowledge. After graduation her best friends drag her to a party where she gets drunk and makes out with a ripped guitar-playing college student with stringy blond hair (Scott Porter). But when the night ends in humiliation, Brandy makes a list of every sexual act she can think of and commits to doing each one over the summer. Ever emboldened by a well-thought-out checklist, Brandy embarks on a sexual quest.

The To Do List is a pernicious piece of propaganda designed to re-inflict the horrors of 90s fashion and music on an unsuspecting audience. It’s set in the summer of 1993. My guess is that writer-director Maggie Carey was a teenager in the 90s, so this is her love letter to that bygone era of Sarah MacLachlan, Hillary Clinton, Janine Garofalo, and baggy clothes. (Brandy idolizes the former First Lady, while her conservative father, who’s terrified of discussing sex with his two daughters, reads Rush Limbaugh.)

While there were funny parts in The To Do List, the film’s brazen attempt to be shocking left me feeling slightly disturbed. I felt that my inner-puritan had suddenly and without warning been awakened and mobilized. When it comes to sexual activity, Brandy doesn’t beat around the bush. She goes for what she wants with a kind of scientific rapaciousness: Brandy’s not interested in intimacy. She’s interested in experience. Perhaps because her two friends (played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) are constantly goading her about her chaste existence, Brandy feels left out of the party, like a kind of sexual freak who can’t even kiss a guy correctly.

Aubrey Plaza has this quality that runs throughout her performances in the delightful show Parks and Recreation as well as in her previous movie, Safety Not Guaranteed: she’s the unaffected hipster. Nothing can penetrate the wall she puts up to guard herself from other people. It’s one of the funniest things about her character on Parks, but it’s also the reason she’s not the lead character. In The To Do List, she’s still milking that quality, but the film seems determined to fix it. After an hour-and-a-half of Brandy’s sexual quest, she suddenly decides that sex can be a big deal, but it isn’t always, and shouldn’t have to be. That’s a wonderfully convenient mixed message for youth in 1993 or 2013. With the onset of AIDS a full-blown pandemic in the early 90s, you’d expect perhaps a little more responsibility from a movie so invested in sex.

But, much like the sitcoms of the 90s (Friends and Seinfeld come to mind), this movie lives in a world without AIDS or any other negative consequences from irresponsible sexual activity. (There is a scene where Brandy requests that her latest sexual partner wear a condom so as to avoid AIDS or pregnancy, but it’s delivered in a kind of mock-serious tone that seems disingenuous.) Then Brandy complains that all guys want is sex. This after she has forcefully taken the lead in every one of her sexual encounters over the past few months.

And at the end, when you’re hit over the head with the movie’s ambiguous message, you may feel as manipulated as the dumb guys Brandy’s been using for her “research.” A raunch movie that tries to make some kind of loosey-goosey statement about sex feels like a cop-out both as a raunch movie and as a kind of responsible social commentary.

With  Johnny Simmons as Cameron, the boy who likes Brandy, Bill Hader as the losery guy who runs a public swimming pool, Rachel Bilson as Brandy’s nymphomaniac of a sister, Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Donald Glover as three of Brandy’s other conquests, and Connie Britton and Clark Gregg as Brandy’s parents. ½

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