RIORI Vol 3, Installment 81: Greg Mattola’s “Paul” (2010)

The Players…

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, (and the endless voice of) Seth Rogen, with Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Dinner, Jeffery Tambor and Sigourney Weaver.

The Story…

A pair of dyed-in-wool British sci-fi geeks are taking holiday in the US southwest. Not just for attendance at the big deal Comic-Con, but also to scope out historic UFO sightings in the vast wilderness.

They get more than they bargain for.

Chugging along in their RV late at night on the highway they narrowly avoid a serious car crash. Feeling their civic duty to check on the driver, they’re beyond shocked to discover a for real alien behind the wheel.

Some smelling salts later, they learn his name is Paul, and he needs their help getting home.

It turns out for our trio, “home” is a relative term.

The Rant…

A while back I covered Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great And Powerful, a rompy prequel to the classic Victor Fleming opus, the third (and best) cinematic interpretation of L Frank Baum’s opus, The Wizard Of Oz. I also went on record that I was never keen to fantasy. Wasn’t interested in Tolkien’s film adaptations. Never saw (nor read) any of the Harry Potter series. Never even was barely curious about watching (or reading) Game Of Thrones. Beyond Fleming’s idea of Oz, the closest thing to fantasy films I ever dug was…well, Oz, The Great And Powerful. Mila Kunis made for a cool Wicked Witch Of The West. As well as Meg Griffin, just to play to the fanboys.

Speaking of fanboys, despite being meh on fantasy I’m big on science fiction. Last time I waxed nostalgic on being exposed to Ridley Scott’s signature flicks, namely Alien and Blade Runner. Sci-fi films in the barest sense. Sure, both flicks took place in the future, where malign tech and nasty, slobbering xenomorphs reigned supreme. I also spoke of my young poisoning of the mind catching both Star Wars: A New Hope and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater around age six.

However neither of those pairings really stuck. They piqued my interest, sure, about “out there, somewhere.” But the sci-fi gateway drug was (surprise) Star Trek. That and a few Arthur C Clarke books and Time magazine’s compendium of how the universe worked. For sure. Bless your local library. And put down the damned smartphone.

Yeah. Trek. A giver. I remember the very time I got into it. I was 14, and rolling on the couch like a desiccated hot dog back and forth on the lukewarm washboard at your local Sheetz. I had my wisdom teeth impacted, and my jaw felt like a strained jack holding up a Mack truck. I all I could eat was yogurt and all I could do was churn on the couch and watch TV. It sucked.

Cold compact pressed against my mandible, I surrendered to the idiot box. Didn’t want to read or listen to music. The NES controller grew dusty. The remote was sticky in my mitt (when I wasn’t groaning rubbing my on fire jaw) as I channel surfed. Saw the usual “Disney Afternoon;” (yes, I was in high school and still watching cartoons. I had yet to experience the oys and joys of p*ssy and beer. We could both do worse). I was a fan of the wry DuckTales, the silly Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and the very good superhero send-up Darkwing Duck. These pastiches ran from 3 PM to 5, where after the syndicated series’ reruns rerun.

Cutting to the chase, at clear 5 every afternoon the local cable affiliate aired both the previous and recent episodes of Star Trek: The Generation starring that lovable dork from PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton. More on that soon.

Sooner than later, I had idly caught an ep of TNG once and saw big bro Levar wearing a golden hair clip across his eyes, wearing tight red pajamas scouring the deck of a damaged starship deck.

The hell? But don’t take my word for it. Ha.

Even at 14 I also dug Reading Rainbow. Our host Levar was a piece of work, promoting literacy on PBS. He came across, convincingly, as the cool older brother who knew stuff. Seeing him with a banana clip over his face made me ask “What the crap?” So with aching missing teeth, I stayed tuned in after Darkwing ended. And gradually the scales fell from my eyes.

I enjoyed the drama. I liked the dialogue. I dug the character interplay. The Enterprise-D looked like a mall in space. Worf’s ever evolving face was funny. I slowly got hooked. Darkwing what?

The affiliate was burning through the fourth season at the time during the week I learned. Saturday evening was last week’s ep followed by the latest installment. I punished my parents before the big screen to tolerate my new addiction before Saturday primetime. And a small win there. Once Paul Sorvino was a guest star on a TNG so even my stalwart Dad set the remote down for that episode.

I swiftly nabbed every episode I could nab. The older sh*t I rented from my local library (remember the 20th Century?) TNG became a fast addiction. I later checked out the original series to compare notes. The drama/humor/intrigue dynamic failed to falter. I was seriously hooked. Not a bad way to go for a stone cold sci-fi fanboy. Now stone cold.

So what else to do, when one is a Trekkie, anathema to the opposite sex, hanging out after school with all-female friends who loved to re-watch Aliens over and over who had no interest in my flaccid…that.

Star Trek-Con!

We went to a handful back in the day, right outside Philly. My friend’s dad was patient in driving us out to the convo (we all had lisences, but no car. How we suffered), dropped us all off at the convention center and spun back to the homeland ASAP. Probably didn’t want to get contaminated. He suffered our endless afternoons carved into the latest MST3K installment enough. He hated tribbles, I guess.

So we were let loose at the Trek convention. It was cool. Really. I mean if you were into sci-fi in all its guises—be it movies, TV, comics or related curios—the whole Trek theme fell by the wayside. Lots of booths with their hawkers peddling the above goodies, not unlike a malign, stellar flea market akin to a space opera wall of a TGIFriday’s shot through a Waring blender.

It was a circus. Folks dressed as out of shape Klingons. Folks dressed as the forceable Borg (lots of dead aquarium paraphernalia put to good use there). Folks dressed as Starfleet Acadamy recruits who could never pass the physical. Also writers, artists, actors earning some beans schilling their former stage and/or screen glories.

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

Consider this. There have been TV shows that have ran far longer than Trek in all its iterations. The original Law & Order. The Simpsons. Even Gunsmoke, before God. MASH still maintains the highest ratings for its finale pales in comparison to the mere three seasons the original Trek graced the grey screen, and us Trekkers get our conventions. It is to wonder.

Three stories from the front, in degrees of artistic appreciation of sci-fi openness that Trek allowed me. From up to down.

First: Sir Patrick Stewart. Capt Picard himself. He wasn’t knighted then, but a was bright light for us dorks. He was the primary guest on the list that day. We all sat in attendance, and Stewart let most of the Trek questions roll off his back.

Stewart suffered our endless TNG questions well enough. The rest of the time he promoted his one-man show of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, a big deal thing back in the day, prob’ cuz it was very un-Trek and most likely what the man needed as a prophylactic to chatting with Number One for the umpeenth about what to do with the dang communication breakdowns with the pesky Romulans.

But Stewart was a stage actor first, born and bred. I recalled when I accidentally saw I, Claudius on PBS (was probably searching for the latest Reading Rainbow installment). I took note of the actor playing Sejanus. That voice. Now the body attached to the voice was voicing to all us geeks. I smelled an opportunity, perhaps once in a parsec. I raised my hand and Stewart called me out.

“Yes, young man?”

“Mr Stewart, I understand you were a student of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bard never wrote science fiction. I don’t think there was any context at the time—

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

—however, I seen you on TNG for years and often wondered how the Shakespearean Method has been imprinted on your Picard character. It can’t be denied the method, but the setting, the scenes on TNG don’t really permit Shakespeare. Drama, yes, but also this context makes me curious. What permitted Sejanus to wear the Captain’s uniform? And to what end?”

(boos from the zits)

Stewart set the mike at his hip and snickered. He raised the thing back up to his lips:

“Young man, you do know where you are right now, correct?”

I didn’t falter. “Yes. We’re here at a Star Trek convention appreciating your appearance. But also it’s also my opportunity to sweat a respected Shakespearean actor to how he’s applied his craft to a space opera, co-starring a guy who pushed books and had the hair clip at the wrong end.”


Stewart giggled, then grinned, “Son, I’m glad you asked me that!”

And he went into a tear about his time with the Theatre, TNG never really hammered on. I was glad. My fellow dorks weren’t. C’mon, if you were alone in a looked room with your favorite writer, would you really ask about how they held a pencil? Doubts even here.

The next late of this trilogy isn’t mine, but too sweet a treat to deny you bored readers. Still makes me smile.

An old roomie of mine was a Trekkie, and once made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Banana Clip Levar Burton was a guest. Due to contractual obligations my crafty friend heard he wasn’t permitted to sign autographs. Pishaw. My buddy knew the secret knock. He cornered Burton after he left the bathroom and leapt on him.

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

He waved his hands. “I’m not allowed to give out autographs, sorry.”

“Well, could you sign this?”

My friend waggled a book in front of Burton. A Reading Rainbow book.

Burton grinned, snatched the picture book from him and said “Gimme that. What’s your name?” He pulled a pen out of nowhere.


Burton scrawled on the cover page: To my friend Lucas, keep on reading. Your friend, Levar Burton.”

Cool right? Better than catching the pick after Keef’s third encore solo.

And finally, the reason why we sci-fi morons congregate the way we do. For the big game.

My last tale hems the pants of my convention days. High school was ending and assumed maturity of going to college after summer. One last night flight. That and another jillion Aliens viewings waiting. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but…

We all went, me and my trio of proto-Ani Difranco friends. It was sovereign this time. We’d already seen the sights at the convo a dozen times over. Same hotel, same sh*t. There were only so many lead soldier Geordis for sale one could pore over. This time it wasn’t about the goods. It was the goods.

The guest of honor was Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy. We were thrilled. Doy.

The man had done it all. An old hand. Nimoy was a star of stage, screen, photography, writing, music (for good or ill), directing and all things logical. When he took the mic—shocker—standing O. It was funny. For decades we watched Nimoy’s exploits on TV and later on the big screen. We scrutinized every twitch of the eyebrow or ear. We ingested his lines. We saw him get McCoy’s goat regularly.

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

Like I said, the guy was an old pro, and not just being an actor. He had been pounding the beat at Trek convos since their inception. Again, an old hand, and he had us all in the palm of his.

He came well prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation, flicking through outtakes of TOS, explaining the minutiae of how the show was put together. We were enraptured. Some were drooling.

The cherry on the sundae was how Nimoy as Spock invented the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper” and all that jazz. The screenshots he presented were from an episode where Spock returned to Vulcan with his human buddies Kirk and McCoy as witnesses to some ancient Vulcanian rite of passage. There was a quick scene of Spock addressing the “queen” with the salute. We well knew the episode. It was etched in our Clearasil-scarred brains.

Nimoy paused the scene and calmly explained the scene and the gesture all we Trekkies do rather than shake hands with one another’s sweaty, mealy palms. The Vulcan salute’s origin. It’s a cool story, really. Even if your not a Trekker. Pull up a seat.

When Nimoy was a kid in Brooklyn, he hailed from an orthodox Jewish family. Missing temple on Saturday was verboten. It was Talmudic law. Best not piss the Big Guy off. Like most Christian practices, there was a benediction at the end of the service. May God bless you and keep you and so on. The Benediction usually occurs at the narthex, where the prelate and acolytes praise the congregation for their audience. JC approved.

The Jews have something similar, but at the front of the altar. Nimoy and his father knew the routine. Close your eyes, kneel, pray and don’t open your eyes. We’re talking don’t look, Marion.

Of course Nimoy did. He said he was six. Seemed logical at the time.

He witnessed the cantor with armed outstretched and speaking is Hebrew. His hands were formed in the shape of a familiar alien greeting, thumb and fingers separated in the middle of the palms. According to Nimoy, the gesture was a representation of the Hebrew character shin, which is supposed to represent a wish for a fruitful life, and also practice actions that would help others find their way.

Sound familiar? Was to us nerds. Nimoy co-opted the gesture and meaning for the Vulcanian salute. “Live long and prosper.”

All of us in the enraptured audience in unison went, “Ohhhhh. Okay.” Grins all around.

Cool Hand Spock suffered our questions well, with much patience and humor. I reiterate, guy was an old pro. Talked about goofing around on the set. What a card Shatner was, always pranking him. And DeForest “Bones” Kelley was really a sweetheart, miles away from cantankerous Dr McCoy. It was revealing. Not just hearing about how the sausage was made, but how communal the cast was. A family. Shat, Bones and Nimoy were buddies as well as co-workers. So were the rest of the cast of TOS.

It was not unlike us Trekkies. Most strangers to be sure, but not unlike rowdy Philadelphia “Fly Eagles Fly” football fans, vintage vinyl collectors and online gamers. It’s a community, often congregating in their chosen forums to revel and high-five over their culty, pet hobbies. It enables camaraderie that, let’s face it, outsiders wouldn’t “get.”

I believe that is the appeal of both Star Trek cons and Birds’ tailgating alike. Like-minded folks immersing themselves in their fetish, where strange, disparate weirdoes can make friends. Among others who “get it.”

Like with sci-fi cons, fast friendships can be formed, forged in the arcana of Star Trek, Warhammer and the rioting that followed the Cubs winning the series. Bonds formed with people who get it, and snubbing the poor schlubs that don’t. Their loss. Resistance is futile.

Well okay, one more: a prime example of this is a tale from one of my bar buddies, also a Trek enthusiast. He attended a con where James “Scotty” Doohan was the guest of honor. He was in ill-health, kinda dinged in the head, recovering from a stroke (which left him speechless. Literally) and stuck in a wheelchair. There was a lightyear long queue for getting his autograph. According to my bud, the stroke rendered his penmanship a bit wobbly. Read: inscrutable.

My pal patiently waited in line. He noticed that Doohan could barely hold his Sharpie and basically scrawled a blur across the fanboys well-worn copies of Mr Scott’s Guide To The Enterprise. My friend wasn’t interested in scribblings. He wanted to chat with The Man.

His turn came and with no pretense he greeted him in a tone that could wake the lame and the halt (which was kinda the point):

“Jimmy! Lookin’ good! Hey, what do ya say we ditch this joint? Got a great bar upstairs, How ’bout we do some shots of whisky?”

Doohan’s droopy face lightened up. Grinning, he craned his head up to look at his daughter who was escorting him and smiled. She shook her head no. Scotty frowned.

“That’s okay, Jimmy. When yer kid has to hit the head we can skeedadle!”

Again the grin, again the frown.

“Anyway, heard you were signing stuff?” He held out a well-worn VHS jacket of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Doohan got the role on TOS based on his rep for being a skilled voice actor. Doohan was Scotty as well as Arex as well as all the ancillary voices voices on both series.

“Do me the honor?”

Smiles again. Doohan raised a shaky, outstretched hand and accepted the case. He held the Sharpie in both hands and slowly, carefully wrote on it in very clean script, “For my friend, George.” Clear as a sunny day. Too bad shots didn’t later ensue in celebration. A few months later Doohan passed away, but my bud has his “real” autograph to remember him by.

That’s kind of family feeling Trek cons create. As do tailgates and the SXSW festival. We get it. And so sorry if you don’t and then scoff. Your loss.

So now, let’s fall down the sci-fi geek wormhole with a pair of unwitting pals accidentally finding their “thing” out in the real world.

Well, “surreal” world might be a more apt description…

Two sci-fi geeks in blood from Britain, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost, respectively) take holiday to attend a big deal Comic-Con on the West Coast (and we ain’t talking Wales here). But that’s just the cherry on the sundae. They’ve rented an RV for a road trip across the American southwest to check out all the alleged alien activity over the past century (and we ain’t talking rogue migrants here).

When their boat gets all waylaid near Nevada’s forbidden Area 51 by what first appears to be a DUI driver, well there goes the voyage for truth and fun. Until the driver scrabbles out of the scrub and introduces himself.

His name is Paul (Rogen).

He’s a Grey, a casual term for a space alien. From outer space. Outer. Alien. The contact of is the holy grail for these two twits.

He needs help getting home, not to mention sanctuary from the gun happy agents who need to get him back to the lab.

(And we ain’t talking Alexa home here. We’re talking “phone…” Oh, you get it, tosser.)

I’ve read that when it comes to very Albion, very dry comedy Simon Pegg (also Scotty!) and Nick Frost can do no wrong. From Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, they are Britain’s answer to a Millenial Laurel and Hardy. Us moviegoers can’t wait to see what another fine mess they get themselves into.

After seeing Paul I think the secret to their success is staying in the UK. Their rapport may be regarded as a novelty to us Yanks. But take these two goofs across The Pond and set up camp in Vegas? Erm.

Make no mistake, Pegg paired with Frost is very funny. But taking them out of English context render them cannon fodder. Namely, ain’t these limeys cute? Especially in the Nevada desert? Does England have a desert? Haw haw.

That speaks that their’s is a very palpable awkwardness for our wonder twins hamming it up as strangers in a strange land. That schtick is like a sliver or popcorn wedged in one’s gums. Pegg and Frost don’t belong in America, let alone the community their fave sci-fi con environments provide sanctuary from the ugly, real world. It’s kind of a cheap joke, fish out of water and all that implies. It’s been done before, and done better.

To the point, Pegg and Frost are poorly fit for Paul. Their interplay is based more on finger-pointing than hands across bellies. It’s kinda mean. And redolent of the unfun stereotypes that fanboy geekiness invites. The “innocents abroad” gig only goes so far.

That’s really the shame of Paul. It’s rather one note when there was comedy gold to mine. Instead we get sci-fi geekdom in its stereotypical bad light (which ain’t hard come to think of it), drug jokes and sh*tty chemistry between all the Yank players; save Bateman (and surprisingly not Weaver), Paul suffers what I’ll call “joke cramming.” Namely, there are so many funny cast members all pitted against each other to be the funniest. It plays like a fridge door with way to much elemenary school art: hard to compare, but necessary completeing the whole. Whatever that is. Try to get a nine year old to cough up her postmodern muse, which is likely a melding of Care Bares and Melanie Martinez. In short, Paul tries to be cohesive, but the kid ate up all the paste.

Beyond Pegg and Frost, Paul does have a great, eclectic cast. It’s too bad they all were reading different scripts (which I suspect was mostly improv). Our two blokes, despite being the stars, are quite underused. They’re both underused, especially in light of the background rogue’s gallery backing up the story. Sorta more on that later.

I think the lick of salt you take with Paul is that it’s kinda like a funny X-Files/ET send up. Maybe outright parody. However the thing about parodies is that they are deliberate send ups of war horse movie tropes. Think Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and the rest of Mel Brooks’ CV. Not to mention the Police Squad movies, the Airplane! movies and practically the entirety of the ZAZ movies (save Ghost, which later was sweet parody fodder in other parodies, like The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Hey, wait a minute). Parodies are winking and let audiences in on the joke. Bad parodies resort to Family Guy-esque non-stop pop culture name dropping to blur the corners. If parodies require Google, they’re lame. It’s one thing to be let in on the joke. It’s another to be overloaded and force to surrender to a critical mass. Keyword being “critical.”

Paul tries to be sweeping in skewering anything and everything sci-fi geek/classic sci-fi film it’s like shopping at a flea market for used electrical sh*t. It plays like this:

“Hey look! A used Sega Saturn! For just a buck!”

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

“No big! Previous owner musta got pissed at f*cking up nights Into Dreams too much.”

“Those look like cordite burns.”

“Ah, it’s a buck. I’ll take it home, clean it up and we’ll be in PTO land faster than you can call 911!”

Then you call 911 as your mancave descends into the Seventh Level. All that wasted beer. Tsk tsk.

In other words, this flick could’ve been great. A real find. Then it leaves you dumb. And hard to figure if that was intentional. That’s the trouble with poor parodies, you eventually can’t differentiate the inside jokes from the outside, name-dropping ones. It’s gets boring. As Steve Martin claimed: comedy is not pretty. True, but it should defiantly bore as Paul did for me.

We’re sorta get into the above now. I keep my promises.

At its core, Paul is a buddy/road trip comedy. Almost always a good thing to waste time with. Think Rush Hour, Rain Man and all those classic team-ups with Bob and Bing. The key to such flicks are surefire gold chemistry between the leads. Or course Pegg and Frost have that spark, duh. However the supporting cast has a vital purpose also: to bounce off our bumbling heroes. Despite the awesome supporting cast bombarding Pegg and Frost with limitless comedy fodder, our limey dolts are too passive. Way too passive. They only react to the inanity, not respond. Pegg and Frost made their mark in zany comedy by interacting with absurdity that plagues them (e.g.: remember the record throwing scene in Shaun Of The Dead? Yeah, like that). In Paul, they are the records, bombarded with insanity and Frost just sits in the RV’s passenger seat while Pegg traipses off to the bathroom. Sorry, I meant loo.

I understand that Paul is another frenetic comedy directed by Mattola, but there stinks of a of rehashed Superbad schtick lurking beneath the Area 51 gags. The buddy comedy. A quest to complete. Jon Hader as a “cop.” What worked once doesn’t always work again, and Superbad is one of the wifey’s fave films. I could not in all honesty suggest we watch Paul together. There’d be too many sci-fi, pop culture refs to punch up. And down the toilet we go.

I feel the ultimate fault in Paul‘s execution is a lot of stilted dialogue. Not what is said, per se but how it’s delivered. Senta, RinaldiSenta. Letting Rogen run his motormouth for 90 minutes does not automatically equal funny. We need some time to breathe. Instead we choke on the bullet-time gags about drugs, sex, sexy drugs and drugging Kristen Wiig with too much truth (there was a gag that could’ve gained traction. Instead it fell into a short-bus version of Tyson’s Cosmos. Coulda worked).

That’s a pretty apt way to send off Paul: it could’ve worked. There were some bright spots, like Weaver winkingly chewing scenery in the final act. Or Tambor’s wry cameos. Of the sense of belonging between our fanboy/hereos in the final scene to share. Hell, even the heartwarmer (kindly slower scene) between Paul and Danner. Everything else was shot through like poop through a goose. Too much pant pant. You gotta lay off the relentless silly in order to take time to giggle. And taking time to see a Grey suck REDACTED don’t count. Sorry.

Based against those bright spots, there was still a lot of wasted potential with Paul. Was it funny? Sure, it fits and starts. Were Pegg and Frost at the top of their game? Nope. And nope. Was the cast awesome? Approaching. Did Paul require, nay, demand pop-culture name-dropping to push the plot along? Uh-huh.

It was a mish-mash of one-liners, winking jokes, tired Hollywood tropes whipped up in a Cuisinart? You just won a prize. Still—believe it or not—I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. Call it my soft spot for the SF cons of youth. Or Frost and Pegg, together again. Or that shared guilty pleasure sense of being one with the cosmos reveling in one’s culty fetish, and the welcoming outstretched arms from fellow freaks.

I guess my real, buried soft spot for Paul was the (admittedly flawed) tribute to guys like Clive and Graeme. Brothers in arms. Loving tales about illicit autographs, contraband booze just out of reach (when one could really need it) and a venerable Shakespean actor suprised and then respecting an honest question.

Sh*t like that never seems to happen watching The Simpsons. Or Firefly.

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

What? Too obscure? No more than debating the life-saving value of Prince’s Batman soundtrack.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I didn’t hate Paul, but I was sorely let down. Still, there were enough winks to keep me smiling and watching. Only logical I gave it a “mild.”

Stray Observations…

  • Are comic-cons really like this? Yes, yes they are.
  • “Pizza!”
  • Cute Raiders nod.
  • “You know you’re grown men, right?”
  • Who’d’ve thought Bateman could ever have such a great flat affect?
  • “Get away from her, you bitch!” A very meta ha!
  • Is this whole flick a tourist trap? Ha!
  • “Seems rather fitting.”

Next Installment…

Cate Blanchette must reunite with Tommy Lee Jones in an uneasy alliance in order to find The Missing  family they both have lost.

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.