‘The To Do List’: Get her done

July 25, 2013

to do list

Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan affect would seem to have limited comic potential. And yet, as she’s shown in the past (in “Safety Not Guaranteed”) and now with “The To Do List,” she’s really a minimalist who knows how to do a lot with a little.

A sex comedy with heart, “The To Do List” casts the slightly too-old Plaza as Brandy, a new high-school graduate (circa 1993, so we’re in the pre-cell-phone/Internet era) who’s gotten straight A’s in everything – except her social life. She’s been too busy being a mathlete and academic grind to actually be grinding on anyone at parties. Parties? She’s never been – until her pals Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) drag her to one on graduation night.

There, she spots Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), local hunk, who stirs things in her that Brandy never realized were there to be stirred. Drunk for the first time, she finds herself alone in a dark room with Rusty – but she can’t seal the deal because, frankly, she has no idea what the deal is.

So as any top-notch student will do, she creates a plan for action: a list of sex acts she hopes to complete, which will theoretically give her the kind of sex education during a single summer that will prepare her for college. She doesn’t even know what some of them are (“Motorboating?”) but she’s determined to use Rusty to practice on.

She’s also spending the summer working as a lifeguard and, as it happens, Rusty is guarding at the same pool. So is Cameron (Johnny Simmons), her study partner whose crush on her has gone unrequited, mostly because it never occurred to Brandy to look at Cameron that way.

What follows is an autodidact’s tutorial in the mating practices of the American teen-ager. When in doubt, she turns to her foul-mouthed older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), for tips. Her parents are of less use: Her father (Clark Gregg) is so uptight that he can’t even hear the words “back door” without getting visibly nervous. Her mother (Connie Britton), on the other hand, wants to have discussions that are too advanced, offering her condoms AND lube.

Not all the humor in this film by writer-director Maggie Carey hits the mark. She doesn’t know quite what to do with Bill Hader (her husband in real life), who is funny as the swimming-pool boss who is as juvenile as most of his employees. Hader keeps the viewer off-balance, though the script seems less focused than scattershot when it comes to his character.

Still, it’s Plaza’s film and she proves that she’s just as funny as Melissa McCarthy in exactly the opposite way. McCarthy is like a female tornado: mouth running, body constantly in motion – a whirlwind of comedy (and a very funny one). Plaza, by contrast, is like a comic zen master; here, she uses her stiffness as a comic device. Her attitude isn’t blasé (as it is on “Parks & Recreation”); rather, it’s intellectually distanced, because she doesn’t quite connect with such human attributes as love or the pain of romantic rejection. These are all new experiences for Brandy – and Plaza makes them funny ones.

The strong supporting cast includes the judiciously employed Christopher Mintz-Plasse and the well-used Bilson, Steele and Shawkat. Gregg also breaks through as a nervous comic presence, while Porter is the perfect blend of randy and dumbo.

“The To Do List” isn’t the best movie of the summer, but it’s one of the funnier ones: a girl-power comedy about one young woman seizing the reins of her own sexuality.

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