Improvisation has long been a part of American movie comedies since the Lumiere brothers filmed a guy getting sprayed with a hose in 1895. Actors seem to take immeasurable pleasure in departing from the script to add their very own one-liner or bit of honest dialogue that comes to them in a moment of inspiration. Many actors, directors, and people working in film will tell you that improvisation skills are a valuable asset and often some of the most brilliant and honest moments from a film came spontaneously out of improvisation. However, this can only be achieved if the film’s director and editor are able to insert these moments into the film organically with the appropriate amount of tact.
Such tact was not practiced by director Ruben Fleischer for the latest film 30 Minutes or Less, a mildly funny buddy crime caper that could have seriously used some editing. Clocking in at only 83 minutes it felt like even that was too long as the actors often embark on improvised conversations that take too long and distract from any of the action. As a result, the talents of the genuinely funny acting ensemble of Jessie Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson are diminished by imperfect timing. The genuinely funny moments in the movie do exist and they come in the tension between best friends played by Eisenberg and Ansari.
Eisenberg follows up his star-making Oscar nominated role in The Social Network with this safe, yet uninspired performance. He plays Nick, a pizza delivery man-child who is remaining stagnant while his friends become successful and established around him. His best friend Chet, played by Aziz Ansari, is a teacher who still displays tropes of the 21st Century movie slacker. Chet’s sister Kate has always been an object of fancy for Nick and she announces her plans to move to Atlanta, causing Nick to reconsider his life choices.
Attempting to out-stupid the pair of Ansari and Eisenberg is Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. McBride plays Dwayne, the freeloading son of a lottery winning Army Major, played by Fred Ward. Dwayne decides that he is tired of being told to grow up by his father so he decides to implement an idea put forth by a stripper he frequents – kill the Major to inherit the money. He and his friend Travis, played by Nick Swardson, order a pizza and kidnap the delivery guy, which of course is Nick, strap him with a bomb and order him to rob a bank within 24 hours in order to get money to pay off a hit-man.
The film plays out pretty predictably from there with this new predicament challenging the friendship of Nick and Chet and forcing Nick to make life decisions in the heat of the moment. The flaw with the film, however, is not its predictability, but its dullness. The script by first-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti does not give the four principle actors enough to do and Fleischer’s direction was not inspired enough to make up for the emptiness.
The real problem lies in the fact that two pairs of slacker archetypes were given equal screen time in the film. Ansari and Eisenberg are the more interesting pair because there is actually a sense of connection between them, thus providing motivation for their friendship and for them to partake in such severe actions. McBride and Swardson on the other hand have no relationship development, which felt very unauthentic. Why would Swardson stay with McBride seeing as he seems to morally oppose many of his actions? This dynamic is why Ansari and Eisenberg’s jokes are funny and fit organically into the film and Swardson and McBride’s feel forced and out of place.
The forced feeling that the actors portray is likely because the script gave them nothing to do. Michael Peña is one of the biggest over-compensators playing the stripper’s boyfriend who has also been hired to kill the major. With an absurdly self-deprecating accent and line delivery, he is the most cartoonish character in a film that already has the depth of a Wile E. Coyote versus Roadrunner short.
The ending is darker than the slapstick style humor present throughout the film had suggested and it makes the film feel like it was going for something darker than it actually pulled off. I would have liked to see that dark-comedy with less of the McBride and Swardson characters and more Eisenberg and Ansari. That would have been more inspired and the stakes would have felt more real. If nothing else, it probably would have been funnier.
Bottom Line: The writer and director should have taken a note from the film’s title and kept this film tighter. Instead 30 Minutes or Less has a disproportionate amount of groans relative to its laughs.