Movie Review: “The To Do List”

Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Scott Porter, Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele
Maggie Carey

There are lots of individual things to like about “The To-Do List.” Aubrey Plaza delivers a fearless performance as the curious virgin, her supporting cast delivers laughs by the pound, and the movie has a coming-of-age vibe to it that was unexpected but most welcome. (You would think that the themes of first-time sex and coming of age would cross paths often, but they really don’t.) For everything it does well, though, it could have done it better. It’s funny, but could have been funnier. It’s clever, but botches golden opportunities to deliver a memorable, poignant one-liner. It works in fits and starts, but there always seems to be something that derails its momentum.

It is June 1993, and Brandy Klark (Plaza) has just graduated from high school. She is class valedictorian, fond of correcting her friends’ grammar, and the most inexperienced virgin on the planet. After a drunken, mistaken-identity encounter with mysterious college-age hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), Brandy decides that before she heads off to college, she needs to know how to handle herself when it comes to sex, the ultimate goal being losing her virginity to the out-of-her-league Rusty. As she gains experience, though, she loses perspective on how her actions affect those around her, particularly her longtime adoring lab partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons).

It’s a bit jarring how unsexy this sex comedy is, but that’s also the point. This isn’t sexual discovery for Brandy: it’s research, and she treats her subjects with the cold, clinical tone a scientist would give a focus group. This, of course, gets her into trouble when her subjects become attached (ahem, Cameron), but it’s in character, which leaves the viewer in the odd position of faulting a movie for being too realistic. Sure, Brandy’s actions make logical sense, but they’d be a lot more interesting if she were just a bit more emotionally invested in the experience, even if it meant that she makes a completely different set of mistakes in the process.

Give Plaza credit, then, for finding the humanity in an emotionally distant character, and making her funny without making her the fool, even when she’s being laughed at (or worse, and she does something much, much worse). As good of a job as she does, though, Bill Hader and Clark Gregg steal every single scene they’re in (fortunately, they’re only in one scene together, and that one’s a tie) as Brandy’s slacker boss and overprotective father, respectively. Even Rachel Bilson earns some laughs as Brandy’s bitchy, slutty older sister Amber, though her character could have used some depth. The script, written and directed by Hader’s wife Maggie Carey, is clearly the work of someone who lived through the period, which would explain the spot-on soundtrack choices and the Andy Samberg-fronted, spectacularly mediocre grunge band.

For the first few years of their existence, CBS Films played it ridiculously safe, making movies like “Faster” and “The Back-Up Plan,” movies that no one will ever watch more than once (unless they’re being tortured). That they had the guts to make “The To-Do List,” even if it doesn’t always work, is a good sign that they’re trying to change their ways. The fact that they ran a trailer for a CBS Films movie made by the Coen Brothers beforehand is equally encouraging. They’re not quite in the position of scaring artist-friendly studios like Fox Searchlight, but it’s a step in the right direction.