Film Review – The To Do List
Comedy isn’t easy. Sure, writing a clever quip isn’t the most challenging thing, but sustaining a consistent and engaging rhythm is hard. Think about the many films you see throughout the year with talented folks that fail to impress (Identity Thief, I’m looking right at you). Without all the fanfare comes one of the one of the biggest surprises so far this year, from a filmmaker that few people will recognize, in writer/director Maggie Carey’s The To Do List.
Based loosely on Carey’s life and the life of her friends in the early ’90s, the story follows the studious Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza). Following her graduation from high school, Brandy comes to the realization that she is unprepared for the complexities of sex in college. She hopes to prepare herself so that she will fit in, and she goes about it in the most systematic process she knows: by creating a to do list of all the sex acts she needs to try. Not surprisingly, hijinks ensue.
It isn’t entirely accurate to say Carey is coming completely out of nowhere, having worked as a writer/director/producer before, mostly notably on web-based stuff. If anything, she speaks to the increasingly blurred lines between various media, much in the same way Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer was able to successful transition into being the director of The Amazing Spider-Man. Looking at this film from the outside, the production is quite polished. The casting is solid, the pacing is smooth, the production design is impressive—it all comes together very cohesively, all earmarks of a seasoned director. This is not even speaking about Carey’s work as the writer on the project, which is perhaps even more impressive than her work as director.
The outlandish premise pushes the story along to a point, but the actual story is quite funny. The comedy is dirty and is going to turn off a fair amount of people right out of the gate, but it isn’t any more outrageous or obscene than what you see in your average American Pie or other similar coming-of-age movies. The original title of “The Hand Job” gives a perfect taste of the provocative humor you should expect.
One of the reasons people don’t seem to appreciate the difficulty of writing comedy like this is is that writers like Carey make it look so easy. Certainly the shock comedy is what people will remember about the movie, and perhaps at times it might become a little too dependent upon that, but the underlying story of fitting in and the fight for acceptance is just as engaging, and could’ve just as easily been the driving force. This film is a great demonstration of the idiom that if you give good people (Plaza, Clark Gregg, Connie Britton, Donald Glover) good material, great things result.
Continuing her cinematic evolution is Plaza. Following up on the success of last year’s indie time-travel drama Safety Not Guaranteed, she takes another step forward into working as a lead in mainstream cinema. It is no surprise that she is incredibly capable when it comes to comedy, as evidenced by her work over years of Parks and Recreation, but much like a musical solo artist, this shows that she isn’t just a product of great circumstances and can shine on her own. Her willingness to embrace making fun of herself is the backbone of the movie, and is the key to its success. Plaza’s comedic skills lay the foundation of her character, but the naiveté is what makes her endearing and empathetic. It is hard to not be nostalgic about growing up as you watch her go through her triumphs and failures; there is a very universal language to the movie that goes beyond the sex humor.
Maggie Carey did have one ace in the hole heading into production, and that is her husband Bill Hader. For years, Hader was one of the best parts of Saturday Night Live, but recently he has been increasingly trying to transition into film, with great results. Not only is he consistently impressive in his work, but he frequently steals whatever scenes he’s in. Much like Carey, though, while he has received small opportunities, he hasn’t gotten the chance to showcase his skill. His ability to balance the comedic and the dramatic, and transition between the two, is among the best currently working in film. Here he plays a boss to Plaza’s character who is caught in some arrested development of his own. His growth, in connection with Plaza’s, creates a lot of the heart of the story.
Despite being made on a relatively small budget, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the setting. It is strange to call the movie a period piece, but its thorough recreation of the ’90s is incredible: from the music, to the clothing, to the terminology, it is impressively detailed. This is an important part of the movie, because the story wouldn’t work if it were set during the age of the internet when information is instantly available on any subject. Plus, it speaks to the confidence of Carey as a director that she took the potentially more risky and costly route.
The To Do List definitely deserves to be in the discussion for the best comedy of the year so far. It’s quite an impressive debut for Maggie Carey. If you can handle the vulgar humor, you are in for a treat. This the type of movie we’ll look back on five or ten years from now and be amazed at the collection of talent involved. It’s going to be a launchpad.
Final Grade: A-
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director Maggie Carey.