This summer, two exhaustingly male-dominated subgenres of comedy film are given the fresh take of female leads: The Heat, which rebranded the buddy cop shtick with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy at the lead, and The To Do List, the new release that hands young (but playing younger) star Aubrey Plaza the sex comedy milieu. Playing a long-repressed high school graduate, Plaza's Brandy Klark takes a page from the American Pie book and "vows" to complete a list of sex acts prior to leaving her sleepy suburban hometown for college. This was an undertaking that many appreciated when handled by Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, and the other two. But when it's handed to Brandy, we can't help but squirm all the way through.
The first question we have to ask: is that because she's a woman? Are those of us who have a hard time with The To Do List anchored down by our shameful discomfort with female sexuality? Although it's necessary to entertain the possibility of our own prejudices, the blame here really lies with the character. Jim Levenstein and his band of merry idiots were not without their ethical shortcomings: they were a selfish, childish, vain, and inconsiderate bunch. But Brandy, and the very spirit of The To Do List entirely, is just plain mean.
Actively casting out the well-being of her friends and coworkers, Brandy turns what might have been a joyful albeit raunchy screwball comedy into a vindictive mission for self-gratification. So steadfast in her narcissistic ploy is the character that she destroys her closest relationships — those with lifelong pals played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, and more substantially, that with Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the friend who pines quite openly for her. Without any real interest in rectifying the latter turmoils, Brandy affixes herself to a new found "live for the now" mentality, not really recognizing that this passionate maxim is hardly a free pass to be a jackass to the people who care about her.
The film's saving grace, as one might expect, is Bill Hader, who enjoys his own story of abandoning his suspended adolescence to become a more "appropriate" version of an adult. Although we might roll our eyes at the film's intention to have us root for his perpetual party-boy attitude, we can't help but laugh at his usual charming delivery. That, and a couple of laughable gags from bit players Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, and Adam Pally, are what make The To Do List a passable hour-and-a-half of entertainment. Otherwise, the film's would-be fun-loving, youthful spirit crumbles under a misanthropic attitude and bitter disregard that no teen movie (or teen, for that matter) is duly entitled to.
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Despite what the trailer might have you believe In the Land of Women isn't exactly a sweet sigh-inducing romance. Yes main character Carter Webb (Adam Brody)--a slightly snarky screenwriter who makes his living writing soft-core porn--leaves Hollywood for Michigan to get over a hard break-up by taking care of his aging tart-tongued grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). And yes he subsequently ends up getting entangled with angsty blond teenager Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart) and her lonely mom Sarah (Meg Ryan). But the trio's tenuous relationships are complicated by confusion resentment illness and misunderstanding all of which add up to a situation that's hardly straightforward--and frankly not all that romantic either. Brody is no stranger to playing sarcastic pop culture-savvy Southern Californians: After four seasons on The O.C. as Seth Cohen he's got the type down pat. As Carter he balances wry quips with a nice dose of empathy--you can tell that he truly cares about both Lucy and Sarah (not to mention his grandma as crusty as she is). But to be honest it's a little hard to see why. Stewart plays Lucy with a shy sullenness that's not very endearing--she gets a little more animated toward the end but it's too little too late--and Ryan's trademark perkiness has worn thin. She gives Sarah's dramatic scenes her best shot but the character's confusion and pain don't seem at home on her unnaturally tight face. Dukakis gets in a few zingers as Grandma Phyllis but the character is essentially one-note--as is Lucy's sister Paige (Makenzie Vega) who swiftly goes from "cutely precocious" to "awkward yapping." In many ways Paige seems like a character lifted out of the John Hughes playbook which isn't that surprising given Carter's fascination with the '80s director's oeuvre--and the movie's Hughes-ian high school subplot. Unfortunately the "classic" high school movie scenes (the party Lucy takes Carter to their movie outing at the mall her dawning realization at the end etc.) while fun for folks who grew up watching the movies they're obviously inspired by have a light tone that's jarring compared to the rest of the film's drama. When it comes down to it Carter--who's looking for a reason to stop drifting through life--has a lot more in common with Garden State's Andrew Largeman than Hughes heroes like Ferris Bueller and John Bender. Trying to squeeze him into a teen-centric story rather than focusing on helping him grow up doesn't do him--or the movie--any favors.
Dave Chappelle is a Hollywood anomaly. Not only because the comedian felt his soul was worth more than $50 million (the reported amount he walked away from when he left his Chappelle's Show) but also because he lives worlds apart from the place--literally and figuratively. In Block Party not a moment is spent trying to go deep inside the man behind the comedy yet that much is ascertainable. The documentary tells instead of his September 2004 mission to organize a rap/R&B block party/concert in Brooklyn and hand out the event’s "golden tickets" at random to people in his Dayton Ohio community. It cuts back and forth between concert footage with his standup and the often-funny events that precipitated it. Those hoping for some sort of mea culpa will be disappointed (and should be ashamed); rather it's Chappelle's show seemingly the way he wanted Chappelle's Show. While Block Party obviously contains no acting there is a bevy of performers. The catalyst of course is Chappelle and as he did so well on his show he turns mundane observations into knee-slapping hilarity—thanks in no small part to his infectious laugh that follows everything he says. He also plays the part of hip-hop goodwill ambassador both reuniting groups and diversifying the lineup. His tastes and schoolboy enthusiasm might even be enough to endear the hip-hop naysayer. See he prefers artists who are progressive--artists who say something punctuated by actual live music! Acts like The Roots Kanye West Common Erykah Badu Jill Scott Mos Def Talib Kweli Dead Prez and a reunited Fugees--the film’s climax if you will--make theater dancing all but unavoidable and massacre stereotypes. And they're all Chappelle-approved for an extra layer of authenticity. Block Party perfectly pairs subject with director. Michel Gondry--best known as director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--has a voyeur’s curiosity an artist’s eye for aesthetics and an ear for left-of-center music (he is also an acclaimed music-video director). He is not interested in somehow exposing Chappelle to his legions of fans and few detractors but he does touch on something that might surprise: Chappelle with his genuine benevolence seems just as content to get a smile as he does a laugh. Such is the case when he invites an entire college band to come play at his block party and pays their way; or when he pleases the crowd by assembling the aforementioned eclectic mix of musical acts groups which might’ve gone their careers without appearing together. But what Gondry captures best is this freak of nature who’s so maddeningly candid in front of a camera.
With college behind them East Great Falls High School alums Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) decide the time is ripe for marriage. After an embarrassing restaurant proposal that involves under-the-table fellatio and a missing ring Michelle accepts and sets her sights on the perfect wedding ceremony. Jim and his best buds Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) decide to leave Stifler (Seann William Scott) in the dark about the upcoming nuptials to avoid any possible calamities but it doesn't take long for the Stifmeister to figure things out. Stifler the only one of the gang who has not matured since high school lays on the charm--and the Lacoste sweaters--and quickly gains acceptance from Michelle's stuffy parents and her attractive sister Cadence (January Jones). The film basically revolves around Jim trying to turn Michelle's dream wedding into a reality while Stifler unintentionally foils his friend's every effort. American Wedding follows the same formula as its two predecessors and while there are some really funny gags here you can spot their setup from a mile away. When Stifler for example accidentally feeds Michelle's wedding band to a dog waits on it to pooh it out then scoops up the jewelry with a paper doily we are hardly flabbergasted when it is later mistaken for a truffle. And that just about sums up the movie: funny but formulaic.
In the first two American Pie movies Biggs's character Jim was always a key comedic player. For instance who could forget his Internet snafu with Nadia the foreign exchange student or the Crazy Glue incident at the beach house? But while American Wedding is all about Jim and Michelle's wedding Biggs and Hannigan take a back seat to the laughs here: they're the stressed-out grown-ups. Also turning in a more muted performance is Nicholas as pal Kevin who doesn't appear to have a purpose at all in this installment--although he does provide a bit of comic (albeit non-speaking) relief during Stifler's botched attempt at a bachelor party. Contrary to Jim Michelle and Kevin who have blossomed into somewhat dependable adults Scott's character Stifler has degenerated. Stifler is more crass and obnoxious than ever perhaps even a little too over-the-top. The actor whose performance stands out the most in this comedy is Thomas in the role of Finch. Thomas has taken the character's haughtiness and peculiarity to a new level fine tuning Finch's attributes and stylishly transforming him from a high school geek to a cool brainy college graduate. Eugene Levy who is back in the role of Jim's overly involved father but his shtick has become redundant. His only purpose in the films is to walk in on his son at every inopportune moment.
All three films in the American Pie series were penned by screenwriter Adam Herz and produced by Paul and Chris Weitz--who also served as directors on the original--but they have all gone through different directors; the J B Rogers-directed American Pie 2 and now American Wedding helmed by Jesse Dylan (How High). Like the second installment American Wedding has its moments and there are a handful of truly funny ones including a scene in which Jim shaves his pubic area and dumps the hair out the window where it blows towards a group of unsuspecting guests (and the cake). But unlike this particular instance most of the jokes suffer from overkill; the cameras keep rolling long after the yarn stops being funny. Others are stereotypical like Stifler's dance-off with a patron in a gay club while others including a midnight rendezvous in a dark hallway closet are predictable. But even though the film revolves around the now all-too-familiar characters Herz has matured them in a way that still makes them both amusing and endearing. Don't however look for Oz (Chris Klein) Heather (Mena Suvari) Vickie (Tara Reid) or Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth). The filmmakers believe these characters weren't needed since the story wasn't about them anymore but it would have been nice to mention them and what they were up to.