RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 16: Maggie Carey’s “The To Do List” (2013)


The Players…

Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader and Scott Porter, with Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele and Clark Gregg.

The Story…

Class valedictorian Brandy Klark can and has handled anything that high school threw at her. Stellar grades? Of course. Extracurricular activities? Almost the full catalog. Dating?

Uh, what?

College starts in the fall for Brandy, and facing down all the socializing that comes with that (read: action with the opposite sex), she realizes she’s coming up trumps in the sex department. So she takes the logical, studious action: make a list and check off any and all erotic activities she’d like to work her way through before heading off to school. Hopefully with that studly surfer dude Rusty.

The Rant…

I’ve noticed in the past few years, and I guess it’s SOP for every generation, that Hollywood has been cashing in on movies squarely aimed at my generation. The vaunted Gen X. Those of us, who were Reagan babies, grew up with the Internet and a keen acumen for relaying tons of useless pop culture trivia to one another with the ravenous fervor of a bulimic elephant in front of the Planters’ factory.

I noticed this trend when the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies came out. The Transformer toys and ensuing cartoons were a hot commodity back in, say, 1985 (back when the original animated movie came out, BTW). The Transformers movie dropped in 2007, when we of Generation X is all growed up. I was working in a comic book shop at the time (DON’T JUDGE ME) and my fellow geeks of similar ages were raving about the film, saying it was awesome and the best thing they ever saw.

Hmm. This seemed like key jingling to me. The best thing they ever saw? That’s sad. Now I’ll admit it, I haven’t seen a single installment of the Transformers franchise. Why? I don’t really wanna be another statistic to be pandered to courtesy of Hollywood, another wallet to shamelessly empty. That and I hate almost all of Michael Bay’s movies. But to seemingly trap a generation who had fond memories of childhood backyard wonder, knowing full well how irresistible it is to tempt the tastes of long ago? That is calculatingly cruel and insulting to entire generation of latent adults who march off to the theater to try and recapture something that is fleeting, and basically, not as great as you may have remembered it. Cashing in on nostalgia? It might explain the insipid Smurfs movies from the past few years.

…Right. Movie. Let’s get on to that:

The To Do List is very aware of nostalgia. Self-aware in fact. The film takes place in 1993, twenty-odd years ago when I was in high school. Back when there was no World Wide Web, cell phones were the size of bricks for the privileged few, grunge was the soundtrack, and I had this sick crush on some girl in band that I never had the sack to ask out (you did too, admit it. Well maybe no the band part). It was your salad days, all hormonal and identity building. Sure it was tough at times, but like they say, it built character and meant you were growing as an individual.

*eyes rolling Heavenward*

Let’s face reality. For most of us, high school sucked miles of broken glass and stank of acne and angst. But it was a major touchstone in social awareness, when your personality was starting to gel. You began to understand what you liked and disliked on a socially relevant level, and eventually it (whatever “it” was) defined you as an individual. You may have attached a lot of your memories to the events that happened in high school, for good and for ill and are going to drag them around with you for your remaining days. This is not a bad thing, walking around with all these pop culture moments in your mind. Especially if you’re a member of my generation with the ridiculous affectations of pop culture dripping from your cerebral cortex that cloud your judgment when seeing a silly movie based on a line of toys over twenty years old.

Sorry. Still bitter about that cinematic version of gaslighting. So it goes…

Valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) is the epitome of overachiever. It seems that ever since kindergarten, not only she has reached for the brass rail, she’s straddled it as been ridin’ for glory ever since. Too bad it’s the only thing she’s been riding.

It’s summertime, and Brandy’s college bound in only a few short months. She’s more than prepared for the transition. She’s got her awards on the wall, her scholarship in place and all her pencils sharpened and her lascivious buddies Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Steele) nudging her at every moment how not prepared Brandy is for college. You see, Brandy is painfully virginal, and has generally deleted the need or at least any curiosity about the opposite sex. She’s had no time for boys. Made time. Brandy’s just apple pie about reaching her academic goals without being distracted by some mouth-breathing boyfriend, thank you very much.

That is, until, she her gal pals attend a usual but this time fateful party…

Long story short, a brief encounter with the resident blond Adonis Rusty Waters (Porter), all tanned, chiseled abs and guitar slinging at a moment’s notice makes Brandy to finally make time for the pesky—albeit gorgeous—opposite sex. So Brandy, being OCD as she is, makes a mandate. She will lose her virginity to Rusty before the summer is out. She considers it worthwhile goal on par with the student government, president of the math club and another essential learning experience. It helps that Rusty is just too dreamy.

But before Brandy sets off on her quest preparations first must be made. Brandy has no experience whatsoever with all the oys, joys, boys and general stickiness that comes with making out. Necking, dry-humping, hand jobs, all that good stuff? Foreign. Gotta make a to do list of every sexual act in the book (and some out of it) and check them off as they’re completed. Gotta be thorough, lest she comes off as a klutzy newb to Rusty. All of this research should culminate in getting into Rusty’s pants before she’s off to college. Brandy’s always been meticulous, well-read and goal-oriented. But this is sex, and it always, always gets gooey…

Here’s a new one. One wonders why it wasn’t done sooner.

Well it’s kinda new. The formula is an old warhorse. Almost all teen sex comedies are about guys. Remember American Pie? That probably stands as a high watermark for the subgenre, and despite the fact that the movie had memorable female characters (no cookie cutters there), none of them held the spotlight. Busting your cherry in Hollywood (and in the movies. Ha!) seems strictly a guy thing.

Why? Good question, and one director Maggie Carey aimed to answer. She took a pretty good stab at it, too.

An extension of my opening sortie to this installment, tickling the bare feet of nostalgia, despite how not subtle and manipulative it is, is always fun. George Carlin once said that everything we share but never talk about is funny. A good portion of List’s comedy stems from quietly reviewing the acid test of high school memory. Picking out the goodies that send you back to your salad days and thus getting your fancy tickled. Usually this was the junk of the heart that never got talked about in polite company. Or impolite company either now that I think about it.

Well, List didn’t do so hot at the box office, despite maintaining that shared secret funny we’ve all shared. I think the reason for the lousy returns might have had something to do with the nostalgia trip comedy being too specific here. Pop culture is a generational thing, and one generation is only a part of the American whole. Yes, List is squarely aimed at Gen X, with a lot of references being spot on for me but most definitely lost on the Millennials. But The To Do List was made for Gen X, and by playing that nostalgia card…well, it’s kinda hard to make a movie like this without keeping the original pop culture junkies entertained.

Playing on my generation, I loved the title sequence. It’s introductions like this that always crack me up, just like all the pop culture references in this movie. Is there a thing as too much nostalgia? As List’s 100 minutes play out, Carrey’s answer is decidedly no. The choice of music, the technology of the times (I almost forgot about those clear phones), the endless cultural references to then hot topic movies and TV is an overdose on early nineties zeitgeist. The crassness of this trip down memory lane is very funny, but unfortunately for a narrow audience. To which I say, too bad, so sad. Neener, neener.

But anyway, The To Do List answers the question I posited earlier. Why don’t we give the ladies some (aw yeah) much needed insight on how to get laid? C’mon, we’re not talking Sex and the City here. We’re talking fumbling with undergarments in the back seat of your Daddy’s sedan. This isn’t about feminism and social climbing (not really). List is about sex, plain and simple. Carrey based this film on a lot of biographical events, and you what they say: write what you know. In this case, it’s what semen tastes like after too much pineapple juice. 🙂

Yes, yes, I know. But ladies can get rude and crude too. IMHO, I think females are much more self-aware and comfortable about sex in all it’s guises (RE: Cosmopolitan) than guys could ever think possible. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood wised up and decided to get some insight from the angle of the Second Sex. Time for the classic teen sex comedy to get a belated distaff spin.

Our heroine Plaza is terribly funny as uptight, yet eager Brandy. Her facials are priceless (actually, the entire cast’s are). Is it possible to mug the camera without being hammy? I think Plaza does it, pretty well I might add. What’s particularly shrewd on the behalf of Carrey is how fast Brandy turns from civics darling to turbo-whore. One can chalk it up to her overzealous nature or attacking all her learning endeavors with aplomb, but also it sets a (dare I say it) really neat momentum for the film to glide upon. In other words, good pacing. You had me at hello.

Unlike Brandy with all her sharpness and candor, the supporting cast falls into typical teen sex comedy stereotypes, but stereotypes in the best sense. Brandy’s boy BFF with the oh so obvious crush on our lead (Winters), the antagonistic and sexually advanced buddies, the object of her affection, the older “wise” mentor (Hader), we run the gamut. Despite the fact they’re all unquestionably one-note, they’re all sharp and funny or groan worthy with a slap to the forehead (well admittedly, Bill Hader’s Willy tended to get on my nerves. I wanted to like Hader, I really did. Call is residue from enjoying  Superbad).

Speaking of the characters, is List supposed to be self-parody? Is it trying too hard? The template the movie follows is pretty unremarkable as far as teen sex comedies go. Same old formula. But Carrey turns this formula on its ear. As I said List is pretty self-aware, so why not stock itself with the commonplace trappings of this kind of movie as use it as the big screen version of a comedy club? The comedy here is totally based on one-liners, like a sexually charged Mitch Hedberg routine. Funny, punchy and not necessarily hackneyed. The dialogue plays out like a bit, and its words are used with efficiency and candor. Yeah, there are a few sight gags (with keen uses of freeze frames) that can be considered trite, but they’re still funny (like the endless popcorn bucket trick) and that’s what matters.

List does not have the same sweetness as American Pie, but it does have more guts. Really, when the penultimate teen sex comedy’s high point is the main character f*cking pastry, you could really push the envelope a bit more. List does that. As well as ultimately subverting the tired tropes that go along with these kinds of movies. Sure, List can be a bit derivative in places, but don’t worry. It’s all in good fun. At least for us Gen X’ers. And as for the overdose in nostalgia, in the final analysis, it’s all relative.

And yes, that’s what a Mac looked like twenty years ago. Sans Internet. It is to shiver.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. You’ll especially enjoy it if you were born to Baby Boomer parents. Don’t worry, like Millennials, they’ll hate this movie too. Word!

Stray Observations…

  • Oh Lord, Sour Apple Pucker. The end of many casual dates.
  • “You’re like after school special drunk.” Again, Sour Apple.
  • “We can stay.”
  • I still enjoy Mazzy Star. I am old.
  • That Elastica song was released two years after this movie’s timeline. I’m a member of the anal pop culture generation, remember? Go on, ask me what band Justine Frischmann was in before Elastica. Come at me.
  • “To the van!”
  • Goddam devil sticks…
  • “Have fun poppin’ yer cherry.” Should’ve been the movie’s tagline.

Next Installment…

Nic Cage and crew struggle to survive the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.


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