The tricky thing about smart sex comedies is that, when done badly, they become stupid sex comedies. Despite a raft-full of talented performers and the best of intentions, “The To Do List” winds up being a very, very stupid sex comedy.
Do young women deserve equal access to raunchy, ribald and risqué farces about losing one’s virginity and learning the mechanics of carnality? Absolutely.
Do those same ladies deserve a movie whose jokes actually land and which takes their sexuality seriously? No question — and “The To Do List” ain’t it.
Aubrey Plaza (who, more often than not, seems less convincing as a recently graduated high-schooler than the entire cast of “Grease”) stars as Brandy, the valedictorian of the class of ’93, who aced her AP exams, edited the school paper, led the Mathletes to victory and never, ever did anything remotely naughty with a boy.
After getting drunk at a graduation kegger and briefly making out with sexy surfer-type Rusty (Scott Porter, “Speed Racer”), Brandy realizes what she’s been missing.
In true type-A fashion, she puts together a list of all the things she needs to learn how to do (mostly unprintable here, but a lot of them have the word “job” in the title), culminating, she hopes, with going all the way with Rusty.
Brandy gets guidance along the way from her pals Wendy (Sarah Steele, “Please Give”) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat), her bitchy older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) and her mom (Connie Britton), while turning the men in her orbit into guinea pigs on her path to sexual fulfillment.
Chief among them is Cameron (Johnny Simmons, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), who has adored Brandy throughout high school and now works alongside her (and Rusty) at a low-rent public pool managed by the boozy Willy (Bill Hader). Wackiness should presumably ensue, but writer-director Maggie Carey, making her feature debut, bobbles the tone; Brandy’s transition from uptight nerd to voraciously curious sexpot feels weirdly forced, and the gags rarely connect.
Take, for instance, a scene where Brandy puts on a bikini to attract Rusty’s attention at the pool, only to have the top come off after she goes down the slide. Willy and the young kids who are swimming all point and laugh at Brandy for having a flat chest, and the scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time, with not only Brandy but also Plaza coming off as the butt of the joke.
When Melissa McCarthy uses her physicality for humor in “Bridesmaids” or “The Heat,” she always feels like she’s in charge of what we’re laughing at and why; in this case, poor Plaza feels like she was hung out to dry by a director who’s in over her head.
There’s a tremendous amount of comedy talent going to waste here — also popping up are Clark Gregg, Andy Samberg (who at least gets to provide some funny O-faces), Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Pally and Jack McBrayer — but there are precious few laughs to be found on this “To Do List.”
Even the ’90s references feel strained (did anyone in 1993 utter the sentence, “I got it on VHS!”?) and remind you of the much better job “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” did at capturing adolescent sexual confusion in the pre-internet era.
Plaza’s supporting turn on “Parks and Recreation” is one of the most enjoyable comedic delights of network television these days, but this movie does her no favors. She gamely plunges into the most awkward facets of the character, but no actress could get away with the big climactic scene in which Brandy realizes that love means more than sex, and that friendship is even more important, particularly since Carey has her declaim these observations like a book report, and at full volume to boot.
Other films made by women, including Sarah Jacobson’s underground comedy “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore” and the recent Sundance favorite “For a Good Time, Call…” among many others, have gotten down and dirty in examining first-time explorations of female sexuality, proving that you can be unabashed about the care and usage of lady-parts without dragging down your characters or the actresses who play them.
“The To Do List,” unfortunately, wastes its opportunity and its talented players for a teen farce that’s both unfunny and unsexy. It is to comedy what an abstinence pledge is to sex.