You know the old saying about how pizza and sex are pretty good even when they’re lousy?
Unfortunately, the rule doesn’t apply to the pizza-guy-turned-bank-robber comedy “30 Minutes or Less,” which remains a lazy and listless caper farce, despite the presence of comedy heavy-hitters like Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride and Aziz Ansari.
Eisenberg, unsuccessfully cast against type, stars as Nick, a slacker whose go-nowhere life revolves around smoking pot and delivering pizza for a shabby franchise that promises you’ll get your pepperoni-and-cheese-thin-crust within half an hour.
One of his deliveries takes him to a construction site where two gorilla-masked men chloroform him and strap a bomb to his chest, telling him he’s got nine hours to rob a bank.
The apes in question are Dwayne (McBride), a doofus who wants to raise money to hire a hit man to kill Dwayne’s dad (Fred Ward) for his lottery winnings, and Travis (Nick Swardson), who, despite being Dwayne’s submissive lackey, is the relative brainiac of the operation, thanks to his skill for making things like bombs and flamethrowers. (You could imagine Travis hanging out with the motorheads from “Bellflower.”)
The only person to whom Nick can turn for help is Chet (Aziz Ansari), and that’s a little awkward, since the two lifelong best friends stopped speaking to each other the night before. (Chet revealed he’d accidentally helped break up Nick’s parents’ marriage; Nick admitted he slept with Chet’s twin sister Kate, played by Dilshad Vadsaria, the night of their high-school graduation.)
Despite the controversy erupting over the fact that “30 Minutes” may or may not be borrowing heavily from a tragic real-life incident, the film presents a farcical set-up that has the potential to be funny. And while we get an occasional a chuckle or two, this movie careens along lacking any wit or even momentum. (For a movie centered around a ticking time bomb, the pace is unforgivably slack.)
The only consistent laughs come from Michael Peña’s eccentric hired killer, the movie’s one character who seems like someone we haven’t seen a million times before. Peña’s off-kilter timing and funny vocal inflections make him the movie’s high point, making his frequent absences from the action that much more disappointing.
Actresses like Halle Berry get a hard time for following up their Academy Award wins with dopey movies, so it’s only fair to point out that Eisenberg’s a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated role in “The Social Network” represents a significant dip in quality.
It’s understandable, perhaps, that he’d want to reteam with his “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleisher, but this time Eisenberg’s playing a much less interesting character — and giving a much less interesting performance.
Ansari’s manic comic energy peps up a handful of scenes, but the “Parks and Recreation” star handles his freak-out soliloquies (which probably provide more opportunities for improv) better than straightforward lines of expository dialogue, where he sometimes seems to be choking on the words.
Danny McBride, it may not shock you to learn, is playing an arrogant white-trash idiot who’s all talk and bluster with nothing to back it up; in other words, the same role he’s played in pretty much everything he’s ever done.
Fleisher’s directorial debut “Zombieland” succeeded precisely because it was such a clever spin on a tired genre — the fact that Eisenberg’s character had survived because of his anal-retentive attention to detail gave zombie movies a fresh, neurotic twist. (Featuring one of the great secret celebrity cameos of all time didn’t hurt either.)
Fleisher does the exact opposite with “30 Minutes,” populating the film with stale, flat, crushingly familiar characters. Much of the blame should go to writers Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan, granted, but Fleisher ploddingly puts these cardboard cut-outs through their paces.
The cinematography in a would-be goofy comedy is rarely worth mentioning, but it bears pointing out that director of photography Jess Hall sucks out what little joy “30 Minutes” might otherwise have. The dank, gloomy look of the film suggests an indie drama about urban depressives or a documentary about factory closures, not a ticking-clock caper farce.
There’s at least one way that the audience will relate to these barely-there characters — Eisenberg spends most of the movie looking at a digital clock to see how long he’s got before he’s released from an awful fate, and viewers will do likewise.