The To Do List (2013)
103 min., rated R.
There's something less smarmy and more liberating about the idea of girls thinking about sex as much as the guys—and one-upping them on the humiliation scale when going on their sexual journey. The writing-directing feature debut of short and documentary filmmaker Maggie Carey, "The To Do List," a cheerfully risqué R-rated teen sex comedy, like the 1999 summer sleeper hit "American Pie," luckily hits that sweet spot between good-natured and raunchy. It has the spirit of a John Hughes film but with "finger-blasting, -bombing, and -banging," and, without a doubt, should embarrass curious teens who make the poor decision of dragging their parents along.
The sardonic Aubrey Plaza is such an original presence, having her deadpan, awkward comedic shtick down pat but also capable of carrying an indie charmer like 2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed" and owning her supporting role on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." Here, she trades her sarcasm for gullibility and inexperience as Brandy Klark, a bookish 18-year-old goody-goody who's just graduated high school as the class valedictorian in 1993, Boise, Idaho. Dragged to a kegger and then setting her eyes on chiseled, surfer-haired college stud Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she pledges to take charge of her sexuality and lose her V-card before heading off to Georgetown University. So, with some tips from her two best friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), and mocking, much-experienced older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes a list in her trapper-keeper of all the sexual deeds she intends to check off before getting laid by her crush. Being around Rusty won't be hard since they both work as lifeguards at the community pool, along with her nicey-nice study buddy Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who has secretly been pining for her all this time. If Brandy can get straight A's in school, she can surely ace sex, right? In the end, she will learn that sex isn't that big of a deal, unless it's with someone you care about.
A piquant mix of saucy wit and a sexual frankness that's refreshing for a mainstream comedy as it is educational, "The To Do List" mostly avoids going for the easy gross-out gag every time (listen up, "Grown Ups 2"). For every joke that doesn't quite land (there's a strained "Caddyshack"-style moment in the pool), many more follow and elicit laughs. Hand jobs, blow jobs, cunnilingus, and dry humping are all integral to Brandy moving down her to-do list, and none of the acts are executed without a level of gone-wrong humiliation. The time period also practically becomes a character itself, with '90s references done to death—skorts, pagers, headbands, electronic mail, "Saved by the Bell," "Growing Pains," "Home Improvement," Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" and Salt-N-Pepa's "Let Talk About Sex"—but a lot of fun to spot for nostalgia purposes.
In her first major vehicle, 29-year-old Plaza is engaging to follow as Brandy and pulls off playing a recent high school graduate. The character is naïve but not dumb or overly prudish, even when she thinks a "pearl necklace" sounds elegant. Early on, it seems Brandy is the butt of the joke, but later on, Plaza, in on the joke, is totally game to awaken the heroine's libido. A masturbation scene in her day-of-the-week undies and a Hillary Clinton T-shirt might be as uncomfortably shocking as seeing Jason Biggs hump a pie for the first time. Every other actor in the inspired cast gets his or her moment and line, too. The invaluable Shawkat and Steele are sprightly back-up as Brandy's gal pals, the former dying to watch "Beaches" on VHS and sob into tissues with her friends. Porter is a perfect choice as Brandy's dream adonis and Bilson surprises with some comedic chops as Brandy's Big Sis. Bill Hader (who happens to be writer-director Carey's husband) is his Bill Murray-ish goofball self as perpetually hung-over pool manager Willy who can't swim; he could have easily just been a caricature but the character is a sad, sensitive soul at heart. Connie Britton is an amusing counterpoint to Clark Gregg, playing Brandy's lube-giving mother to her uptight judge father who hand out night-and-day nuggets of advice on intercourse. Andy Samberg also gives his requisite cameo as a grunge band vocalist.
Writer-director Carey displays a buoyancy in setting up episodic comedic situations and less so when it comes to moralizing and wrapping everything up. About as sloppy as Brandy going about her own sexcapades, "The To Do List" is still fun and funny enough to be the smuttier sister to "Easy A." In the ranks of the time-honored teen comedy, it doesn't go to the bases of that terrifically sharp and genuinely lovable Emma Stone vehicle, but, for a first-time watch, bound to become an easy-breezy favorite at slumber parties with sex toys.
Grade: B -