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.