‘The To Do List” adds to the mounting evidence that ladies are more than just wedding planning balls of emotion. They might actually have both a libido and even interests that go beyond penises. Brandy Clark (Aubrey Plaza) in fact has so many other interests, that she forgot to make time for that crucial pre-college sexual exploration (sexploration) that will ease her into her bowl of wild oats. Writer/director Maggie Carey kills with a fresh take on a familiar premise and continues the loooooong overdue trend of female-driven anti-romantic comedy.
It’s the summer of 1993 and class valedictorian Brandy Clark is preparing for her freshman year at Georgetown. But while she’s compiling her task list, she realizes how woefully behind she is in the sexual arena. Not only is she a virgin, she doesn’t even know the definition of almost everything in the porno top twenty. Remember kids, in 1993 our version of Google was the Encyclopedia Britannica, and they didn’t cover rim jobs.
Brandy solicits the help of her more experienced girlfriends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele) to make a checklist of sexual acts as a precursor to losing her big V to the object of her lust: rock douche Rusty Waters (Scott Porter, “Friday Night Lights”). She burns through the first few items with her former lab partner, Cameron (Johnny Simmons) who harbors a secret crush on her and completely misreads her sudden interest. Thus, Cameron is nicely set up for heartbreak when Brandy expands her sample size to include fellow lifeguards at her summer job. Complicating matters is her degenerate boss with a heart of gold (Bill Hader), who takes an inconvenient interest in her purity and her well-meaning Ditto Head dad (Clark Gregg) who can’t stand to see his baby girl become a woman.
Female perspective aside, what sets “The To Do List” apart from other teen sex comedies is the decade it is set in. The early ’90s has officially become nostalgic, as the carefully chosen clothes, hair-dos, accessories and soundtrack demonstrate. It’s difficult for me to tell how many of those references were meant as punch lines as opposed to set-design because some members of the audience I was with felt compelled to name each one aloud. So I’m going to give Carey the benefit of the doubt on using the period as a humor crutch. Audience aside, this movie still managed to “American Graffiti” me back to my own adolescence and very rarely felt like pandering.
I really have no idea how the majority of film-goers are going to react to “The To Do List,” but for my money, Carey’s debut feature is a rousing success. She got her start writing for failed sitcoms and Funny or Die sketches but she has clearly studied feature-length comedies and runs a tight ship. She never gets hung up on one joke. If a gag doesn’t work, you barely have time to notice before something better comes along. That’s a restraint that other comedy writer/directors (ahem, Apatow) seem incapable of. Carey also makes great use of husband Bill Hader, allowing him to explore his goofiness whilst dropping the occasional emotional spitball.
Aubrey Plaza, best known for her role as the monotone cynic April Ludgate (TVs “Parks and Recreation”), shows her range in the follow-up from last year’s turn in the brilliant “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Plaza is an incredibly gifted physical comedienne. She’s famous for deadpan delivery but she knows how to make the perfect face to accompany her lines and she can take a pratfall like nobody’s business. (Have you tried pratfalling? That s**t is not easy.)
Of course, my favorite thing about “The To Do List” is the female perspective. Too long we have settled for either the John Hughes romantic version of adolescence or the horn-ball sex romps like “Porky’s” in which women are nothing more than set pieces and plot devices. Hughes’ female protagonists tend to be doe-eyed idealists who are too hung up on the idea of love to realize that teenage fornication doesn’t have to be heart-wrenching and you don’t have to wait for “the right guy” to get your rocks off. I’m not saying those girls are a myth. But they’re not as prevalent as the movies would have you believe. My group of friends in high school looked a lot more like Brandy’s than, say, Andie Walsh in “Pretty in Pink.”
Brandy is very upfront about her designs on Rusty Waters. He makes a good “First Time” story but she doesn’t want anything more to do with him. Though Brandy doesn’t know much about sex she at least knows that it’s not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be. It’s nice when you really like the person you’re with, but it can still be a lot of fun even if you don’t. She doesn’t get hung up on whether or not she’s “good enough” or “sexy enough” whilst discovering what she likes and doesn’t like. Her sexual views, uninformed as they may be, are the healthiest of any young female protagonist in recent memory and I would be thrilled if my own daughter one day held a similar outlook. “The To Do List” is not just a hard R sex comedy, but also an important player in film diversification.