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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The To Do List

THE TO DO LIST (Two Stars)
U.S.: Maggie Carey, 2013

adfasdfasdfHow much you enjoy The To Do List—a saucy teenage sex comedy about a just-graduated brainiac high school valedictorian trying to lose her virginity in her last summer before college—may depend on how much you buy into the raunch, or into the notion, that this movie represents some kind of socio-political-cultural breakthrough. Socio-political? Cultural? Breakthrough? Why? Because it’s about a teenaged girl doing the kind of things that teenaged guys do it in gross-out sex comedies like American PieSuperbadRoad TripPorky’s and every other dirty-mouthed coming of age comedy (of which there have been dozens, hundreds, if not zillions)? With the vast majority being about guys, with guys, and directed and written by guys.

Still, if Kristen Wiig deserved a medal or maybe a twenty-tampon salute for throwing a gender bender into the ubiquitous male bromance buddy-buddy comedy genre—by writing and starring in the extremely funny Bridesmaids—we should applaud To-Do for its cheek, and the humorous ways it deviates from the norm. So let’s give a four-letter cheer of varying enthusiasm to its gifted writer-director, who not only wrote and directed The To Do List, but had the chutzpah to say that the movie was loosely based on her own experiences.

Hmm. At its best, this movie does feel like an experience—though it’s been filtered through at least some of the guy-oriented sex comedies we mentioned. Carey wafts us back to 1993 and shows us a heroine, Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, who’s been a goody-goody studious student too long and is eager to get into the sexual swim. Why? Straight A-scoring, straight arrow, Type A Brandy, who graduated from her Boise, Idaho high school with the highest Grade Point Average in the school’s history, and also as a virgin, is ridiculed by her classmates as she tries to give a commencement speech.

Churls! Miffed, and further miffed when the town blonde hunk starts to make out with her at a party (thinking she’s his date) and then quits when he discovers his mistake—Brandy decides that she doesn’t want to start freshman college year still a virgin. She embarks on a summer-long quest to lose her cherry and everything else: to experience everything her classmates have been doing—thereby screwing up their GPAs. (By the way, how do you get a higher GPA than a four-point, which we assume Brandy got, as have many before her, in or out of Boise? I ask; I do not know.).

That’s the joke. Brandy gets a little journal (one of the few visible books in her unstudious-looking room, and writes up her to-do list, a catalogue of dozens (maybe hundreds, zillions) of sexual activities she wants to get out of the way before matriculation, or maybe masturbation. (That’s on the list.) In this crusade, she has the moral support of her two best gal pals and fans of the movie Beaches (Alia Shawkat as Fiona and Sarah Steele as Wendy. And she has the mostly immoral support of several local guys: Scott Porter as that town blonde hunk Rusty Waters, Bill Hader as local dissipated pool manager Willie, Donald Glover as pool guy Derrick, and Johnny Simmons as Brandy’s science partner and lovelorn longtime pal Cameron. Most of these fellows work at the pool and so does Brandy—all the better to put everybody in swimming suits and stage a gag which might be an homage to the Farrelly Brothers: Carey floats a turd in the pool, and then has Brandy, mistaking it for a Baby Ruth bar, try to eat it.

Also in the mix, if not in the pool, is Brandy‘s family: Brady’s lusty, slutty sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), who‘s done it all, and could probably add a few more pages to Brandy’s list; her straight-talking mom (Connie Britton, a good job) and her right wing judge of a pa (Clark Gregg). The movie, which is structured like a 1960s porno, gets into a groove. Brandy shows up for work at the pool, flirts with the guys, and gets a few of them to help her with the to-do list, which gets more and more little checks. It looks like the honor of Boise is in good hands—or hand jobs, which is also on the list. Whatever.

I didn’t find To Do all that funny. And, actually, I don’t find too many of the male versions of the “losing it” genre all that funny either—except Superbad. The To Do List does catch the place and the milieu—the Midwest in the early 1990s—fairly well. (The period songs on the soundtrack include “Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew, and “Lets Talk About Sex” by Salt-n-Pepa.) It does a lot on a small budget and it’s better written than a lot of other sleazy teen sex comedies. It even manages to drudge up a little nostalgia for the dear old innocent days of “Me So Horny.” But, from a socio-political cultural viewpoint…

Hey, what can I say? This is a movie where the most memorable moment—other than the three girlfriends singing “The Wind Beneath My Wing,” which I liked—is when the leading lady tries to eat a turd. To pull off a gag like that, I think, you need exquisite timing and nerves of steel and a stomach of granite. And a good salary. Better yet, you need to forget the joke entirely and think of another one.

The movie is cute and so is Aubrey Plaza—though, with her pouty, sexy, full-lipped looks, I don’t know if she ‘s the right actress to play an all-time valedictorian, or a virgin. (An Ellen Page type might have been better.) On the other hand, if Plaza had played the bad sister Amber, she probably would have stolen the movie, as Bilson almost does. As it is, the best performance in To Do comes from Bill Hader, who looks and acts a little like an elongated young Jack Nicholson and gives the movie the same kind of lift that Sam Rockwell gave The Way Way Back, another summer pool coming-of-age movie.

Well, all I can say…Who ever dreamed that one day the American movie industry would become preoccupied with movies about the end of the world, wild parties, supernatural beings and teenagers losing their virginity? Dozens of them, it seems, hundreds, zillions. Speaking from a sociopolitical cultural viewpoint… oh, the hell with it.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon