Set in 1993, The To Do List follows recently graduated class valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) who realizes that, in spite of her academic achievements and extensive extracurricular activities, she has missed out on one key element of her high school experience – sexual experimentation. With only one summer to catch up before embarking on her freshman year at Columbia University, Brandy ditches her pre-college “To Do’s” in favor of an all-inclusive checklist of carnal acts – with the ultimate goal of sleeping with guitar-playing heartthrob Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).
After discovering that book smarts have left her sorely unprepared for the scandalous tasks at hand, Brandy elects to seek guidance from her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) as well as best (and more experienced) friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele). However, as Brandy becomes more self-empowered, she also becomes more reckless, creating havoc for her personal relationships – especially when it comes to her ex-science partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons).
Despite a fun (and raunchy) setup, paired with a sharp female lead, The To Do List is a relatively routine coming-of-age/graduation summer storyline – where a bookish character is thrown into one zany situation after another. Fortunately, some creative choices by writer/director Maggie Carey, along with an enjoyable (albeit familiar) performance from Plaza and a strong supporting cast help elevate the film above similar offerings in the raunch-comedy genre. In general, fans of the assembled talent (which also include Clark Gregg, Donald Glover, and Bill Hader, among others) should find enough worthy laughs in The To Do List, but many story arcs and comedy setups rely on jokes and awkward encounters that have been covered numerous times before on film – meaning a lot of predictable but still amusing gags.
Even though viewers will likely be able to see key plot beats coming ahead of time, the characters in The To Do List help to flesh out an otherwise standard narrative about self-discovery and teenage sexual experimentation. Brandy’s quirk serves as a captivating comedic focal point – and it is genuinely fun watching her character attempt to navigate the world of clumsy (and horny) teenage boys. Thematically, The To Do List pulls double-duty: delivering recognizable young adult life lessons with an added layer of female empowerment and personal insight – one that doesn’t devolve into shallow romantic comedy cliches by the end. While many of the film’s moment-to-moment encounters border on derivative, scenes of thoughtful insight are frequent enough for The To Do List to offer more than just brainless laughs.
As mentioned, Plaza is a solid lead, but for anyone who has seen her in other roles (Parks and Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed, etc), Brandy isn’t much of a stretch out of Plaza’s established comfort zone. While the actress’ dead-pan comedy style is a fun juxtaposition for The To Do List and its over-the-top sex scenes, there are times when the onscreen drama is a little stilted. It’s not that Plaza is emotionless, subtlety is actually one of Brandy’s more interesting traits; yet, often enough, supporting cast members strain to make their performances (and characters) fit in a scene with Plaza.
Plaza’s quirky leading lady inadvertently pushes side players into one-note outlines – without any real definition outside of their relationship to Brandy: Waters is the muscly hunk, Cameron is the nice guy, Amber is the promiscuous older sibling, and Judge Klark (played by Clark Gregg) is the neurotic father. The one supporting character that is explored in a meaningful way is Bill Hader’s pool manager Willy – the only other person, in addition to Brandy, that is actually given a full character arc. The friendship between Brandy and Willy is one of the better aspects of The To Do List - thought it’s somewhat at odds with the movie’s primary focus. It’s an interesting, but mostly disconnected tangent, that highlights the strengths of the talent involved but fails to connect back in a meaningful way.
Despite working in the industry for over a decade, The To Do List is Carey’s first feature – and it shows. For better and for worse, it’s clear the writer/director put a lot of heart and passion into the movie. The film successfully marries its 90s backdrop with retro hipster chic – and even makes fun use of its check list premise by punctuating each of Brandy’s conquests in freeze-frame shots labeled with their respective sex acts. Still, while The To Do List throws a lot of creative ideas and jokes at the screen, only a fraction of them are essential to the larger development of the story and characters – as if Carey didn’t quite nail the balance between what to include in the final film and what needed to be cut.
That said, The To Do List includes plenty of ridiculous (and cringe-inducing) moments that are sure to entertain moviegoers looking for a raunchy teen comedy. The setup may not be as original as it would have been back in the time of the film’s 1993 setting but there are enough clever pop culture references and awkward comedy setups to keep the movie feeling fresh – even when it covers ideas that audiences will have seen play-out onscreen before. Carey’s coming of age tale isn’t a must see, but with a strong lead and some honest insight, filmgoers who are intrigued by the premise or the assembled cast have good reason to put the movie on their own To Do List.
If you’re still on the fence about The To Do List, check out the red band trailer below:
The To Do List runs 104 minutes and is Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language – all involving teens. Now playing in theaters.
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