The most interesting thing about Hollywood as of late has been its embrace of the casual sex era of dating in romantic comedies while adhering to the genre’s need for a happy ending. No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits explored these grounds before and now The To Do List explores it again. This time it’s from a female perspective, lending something new to the genre that has been male focused for some time.
Brandy (Aubrey Plaza) is the perfect high school graduate in 1993 Boise, Idaho. She’s the valedictorian with the highest GPA in her school’s history, a member of many school clubs and on scholarship to Georgetown. Unfortunately she’s been rather lacking in developing social skills or a dating life. Especially in comparison to her friends (Alicia Shawkat, Sarah Steele), who’ve been a bit more sexually exploring than she has been in high school. With her freshman year of college looming she aims to change all this.
She crafts a “To do” list of things to explore sexually to get her ready for college, culminating with the conquest of Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) for her virginity. All the while her best friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons) pines for her, Brandy oblivious to it all, as she checks off things on her list over a summer spent lifeguarding.
It’s an interesting take on the “losing one’s virginity” realm of teen sex comedies, long dominated by men, with a profoundly feminine take on the material. With a female star and writer/director there’s a profoundly different feel to it. It’s softer and more deliberate, trying to develop a more character centered piece than focusing strictly on raunchy jokes and situations.
It’s closer in spirit to The 40 Year Old Virgin than American Pie in developing its lead character, flaws and all, as she pursues her goal. This is about exploring why she wants to experience all of this as she interacts with friends and family as opposed to merely just a goal based off of taunting alone. There’s so much potential here for a profoundly different take on the subject material that the end result winds up being such a profound let down.
Unfortunately the problem is that while the tone and take on the material are more feminine the film is profoundly flawed. Outside of the change from male to female lead characters there isn’t anything unique or interesting about Brandy that makes us want to cheer for her. She’s developed about as well as an American Pie character, the butt of most jokes to the point where we’re supposed to be feel sorry for her.
There’s no point where we see a character that makes us want to sympathize with her. She’s just there checking her list off, nothing more, and it’s hard to want to root for a character so poorly developed. Aubrey Plaza is game for the role, and in a better film this would be career-changing performance, but she’s stuck with a character that’s not that good.
It doesn’t help that the film relies on jokes we’ve seen before in other, better films. Outside of the woman being the object of humiliation there isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before and there isn’t anything about Brandy that wouldn’t make you think that this is a female character in spirit. Brandy is written like a neurotic teenage boy, closer to Jim from American Pie, and there isn’t anything to suggest this film didn’t start out with a male character in the lead instead of female ala Salt.
The To Do List has such a great premise that it’s unforgiveable that it could be executed in such a sloppy way.
Writer / Director: Maggie Carey Notable Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg