Film Review – 30 Minutes or Less

Dark comedies are a fickle bunch. I can imagine this statement is just as true for filmmakers as it is for audiences. There’s a fine line that must be maintained between danger and humor, and as humor is a defense mechanism, it would seem that the two would be ripe for the plucking. Unfortunately, this balance seems to be lost more than it is obtained, especially in films as of recent. I think this problem stems from several issues: 1) what is considered dangerous is in a precarious place at this moment in time. The world has changed. In the past what was considered absurd is now a reality (I’ll get back to this in a moment), and this has led to 2) what is considered risqué is more often than not simply being raunchy these days. Since filmmakers and audiences are confused on what kind of topics are acceptable to approach when it comes to violence, they are turning to humor about sex, something more of us can probably relate to.

For the latest film from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, 30 Minutes or Less, the timeliness of its release happens to be an example of just how precarious using something dangerous as a humorous device can be. 30 Minutes or Less stars Jesse Eisenberg as a pizza delivery driver who is kidnapped by two would-be criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who have an absurd idea to get an inheritance by making someone rob a bank for them, and then they can use that money to get even more money. The criminals, Dwayne (McBride) and Travis (Swardson), kidnap Nick (Eisenberg), strap a bomb to him, and force him to rob a bank. Nick enlists the help of his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), and the two of them set out to rob a bank.

To my surprise, the story plays out as something closer to an Elmore Leonard yarn than a dark action comedy. Unfortunately, this is also one of the film’s weak points. The characters feel too loose, and yet more focused than the type of comedy the film is attempting. Dwayne and Travis are stuck somewhere between motivation and stupidity. We spend almost equal time with them as we do Nick and Chet. However, the time we spend with them is divided between building motivation through circumstances, something Elmore Leonard often does, and observing what buffoons they are. The problem with Dwayne and Travis being idiots is that they aren’t really funny at it. Their dialogue is just as confused as their presence; it almost seems to have too much purpose or intent put into it. For two actors who I normally find funny just standing there, it was disappointing to see their great comedic timing going to waste with lackluster things to say.

Like the aforementioned requirements for dark comedies, 30 Minutes or Less is of two minds. Nick and Chet are relatable and raunchy. Nick pines for a girl he’s never told he loves, and spends his days getting stoned, delivering pizza, and watching action films. He’s primed for a hair-raising life experience. Chet is the obligatory best friend, who is made the only really funny character in the film by Ansari’s hyper-stressed, insanely funny practicality. He’s the balance to the absurd situation Nick is put in, which brings us back around to the unfortunate coincidence of the film’s release following on the heels of a real life situation that occurred in Australia a couple weeks ago, when a man entered someone’s home and strapped an unknown device around a young girl’s head—at the time believed to be a bomb. I only mention this to illustrate the point of the difficult place dangerous humor has kind of been placed in. Will audiences find the scenario of Nick having a bomb strapped to him just as funny if this situation in Australia hadn’t happened? Consider the 1988 film Heathers, starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. The plot centers around teens who kill their popular classmates and frame the killings as suicide, thus sparking a new cool fad. If that story was fresh today, it would probably not be as humorously received, considering violence in the school place these days.

The biggest problem with this movie is that the jokes are just not as funny as the actors employed to deliver them. This coupled with an unevenness that swings between stoner comedy and action comedy makes for all and all a very underwhelming experience. I like all the actors in the movie and was hoping for something a little more. The fact the movie is also supposed to be an action comedy is another point of contention, as the action is just as flat as the jokes, resorting to poor CGI effects at times where a simple stunt would’ve sufficed and made the moment maybe, actually, exciting. Also, referencing (poorly) other action films does not make for an action film parody or send up, especially when we can see the poorly written title LETHAL WEAPONS written across the video store box, and there is no such plural title for that film.

Final Grade: C-


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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