movie review

Movie Review: The To Do List Is a Welcome Corrective to Male Adolescent Sex Comedies

Photo: Bonnie Osborne/CBS Inc.

It’s a good thing The To Do List is so funny, because otherwise I wouldn’t know what to do with it. This raunchy, over-the-top high-school sex comedy told from the point of view of a girl features many of the same nasty/sexy, outrageously inappropriate things that such movies about boys have been peddling for decades. But simply by reversing the genders, writer-director Maggie Carey turns the tables on us: By proudly wearing its “otherness” (a word I use ironically) on its sleeve, The To Do List feels fresh and strange and wondrously new. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but allow me to confess that I have absolutely zero times negative zero idea of this film’s accuracy with respect to real-life female sexual awakening. Still, how accurate does it even have to be? One need not ever have fucked a pie, nor even to have considered fucking said pie, to laugh at the outrageousness of the pie-fucking in American Pie. Similarly, one need not ever have used movie theater butter to lube up an uncircumcised penis to laugh at the sight of Aubrey Plaza doing so before blithely jerking her un-boyfriend to completion while hot dogs dance on a movie screen in The To Do List. Gross? Yes. Funny? Yes!

I hope you’re starting to get an idea of the kind of movie this is. Brandy (Plaza) has the highest GPA in the history of her school, a perfect attendance record, and pictures of Hillary Clinton on her walls. All that, of course, is just movie code for “virgin,” but Brandy isn’t exactly a shrinking violet: She’s more oblivious than repressed. All that changes one night when Brandy’s friends take her to a big party, a “real party,” where she proceeds to get “Afterschool Special drunk” and has an intense, unintentional make-out session with local long-haired, guitar-playing dreamboat Rusty (Friday Night Lights’ Scott Porter, perfect). Though little comes of it initially, our girl is smitten: “You feel like Marky Mark looks,” she says to the hunk, eyes aglow with liquor and passion. So she takes a lifeguarding job at the local pool, where Rusty also works, her heart set on bagging him eventually. But Brandy also doesn’t want to seem like an inexperienced doofus when she achieves her ultimate goal. So she decides to make sure she’s up to speed and concocts the titular list — cataloging all the sex acts she intends to familiarize herself with before getting to Rusty, approaching her sexual explorations with all the diligence of a school project. And this being a pre-Google 1993, she has to consult her somewhat more with-it girlfriends to learn the finer points of “motor-boating,” “tea-bagging,” and “finger-banging.” (Just think: One year later, she could have discovered the magic of WebCrawler.)

As a narrative, The To Do List is about as unpredictable as Sunday Mass. We know that some typical nineties touchstones will come in for their requisite mocking (Trapper-Keepers, Kenny G, Kirk Cameron, skorts), etc. We know that Brandy’s pursuit of Rusty will cause blowback with her smitten, nice-guy study buddy Cameron (Johnny Simmons). We can even tell, well in advance, what some of the film’s more outrageous moments will be. (Cue the already-much-discussed masturbation scene.)

But the movie is smarter than it looks, too: It effectively captures how the teenage tractor beam of lust obliterates all that stands in its way, simultaneously debasing and ennobling anyone within its power. This is a world where sexual experience is both an insult and a badge of honor. (“Don’t you have a dick to suck or something?” “Several. Unlike you, retard!”) And Plaza, with her deadpan delivery and strikingly beautiful, lopsided face, makes for an ideal guide through this bizarre farrago of humiliation and control, of powerful bodily fluids and poor fashion choices. Her job is harder than it looks: There aren’t many actresses who can deliver the line, “Let’s get to work, vagina!” without sounding like a complete idiot.

The To-Do List isn’t going to rattle the earth’s core with its originality, though some morality watchdog movie review sites may spontaneously combust upon witnessing it. But this movie, as funny as it is, shouldn’t even feel all that special, or outré. It’s a welcome, overdue corrective to the humdrum run of male adolescent fantasies we’ve been getting on movie screens since pretty much the beginning of time. In that sense, it resembles The Heat and its female riff on the buddy cop comedy genre. And like The Heat, like Bridesmaids, it works not because it’s a movie about girls, but because it’s a genuinely funny movie about girls.

Movie Review: The To Do List