The To Do List is a frustrating viewing experience, though not because it is a particularly bad film. On the contrary, it is a frequently hilarious and fitfully interesting teen sex comedy that made me laugh more loudly than I care to admit, and it features a fairly strong lead performance from Aubrey Plaza. What’s frustrating is how closely it comes to forging genuine insight about young sexuality, particularly young female sexuality, only in the end remaining content to fixate merely on raunch and people’s naughty parts. It’s a movie obsessed with the comedy of genitals and bodily fluids. To be fair, there’s certainly a place for movies like this, and I almost wish more of them were being made. Yet I cannot help but also wish that writer/director Maggie Carey had been just as interested in the humans attached to those genitals and expelling fluids with which she’s so obsessed.
Taking place in the summer of 1993, Plaza plays Brandy Klark, a recently graduated high school valedictorian trying to make the most of her final summer before college with a part-time job lifeguarding at a local pool. Clumsy and sexually inexperienced, an accidental and ill-fated round of drunken foreplay with a hunky co-worker named Rusty (Scott Porter) inspires her to embark on a rigorous summer project. To prepare herself for the liaisons and dorm-based fornication that college promises, she composes a checklist of every sex act imaginable in hopes of accomplishing them before Fall Semester begins. These individual acts, each intended to explore a different orifice and appendage of her (and her partner’s) body, eventually lead to the Deed itself – a privilege reserved for her white bleach-blond whale, Rusty.
Soliciting the advice of her best friends Wendy and Fiona (Sarah Steele and Alia Shawkat, respectively) and her more experienced sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy ticks items off her list with any willing partner. That list of partners includes former classmates, burnout band-singers looking for some quick “relief,” and even her own self. Each encounter pans out in a manner she does not quite expect: she experiences awkwardness when a guy stimulates her manually for the first time. She expresses bewilderment at her first sight of an uncircumcised penis. She finds a truly bizarre, yet bizarrely plausible, solution to a partner’s need for lubrication whilst servicing him in a crowded movie theater. And as Brandy perfects the fine art of seducing Rusty, a truly unfortunate wardrobe choice undercuts her valiant efforts.
But Brandy, ever the A-Student, learns from her mistakes and systematically moves on. Inevitably, though, her penchant for collecting sexual experiences as if they were part of a scavenger hunt yields adverse consequences: she loses the respect of Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the boy who bears a torch for her, and she alienates her best friends when she thoughtlessly dry-humps Wendy’s old boyfriend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Most revealingly, when her long-awaited encounter with Rusty finally happens, events do not pan out in quite the way she expects, or particularly enjoys.
The thesis of The To Do List, and the ultimate consequences of its protagonist’s summer project, point to a rather explicitly made point: sex is only a big deal until you have it. After that, it’s just sex – simple, clumsy, overhyped sex. So curb your enthusiasm, and use some damn protection!
That’s actually a valid (if somewhat glib) point to make and, to Carey’s credit as a filmmaker, it is nice to see a movie about teenage sexuality that even slightly evolves its characters after their experiences in marginally sensible ways. That’s a far cry from sex comedies like the American Pie series or Project X, which tend to celebrate – rather uncritically – the protagonists’ depraved treatment of their objects of sexual desire. Still, it’s a shame that so laudably sex-positive a thesis is shown not through organic characterization, but instead dictated to us when Carey forces her lead actress to speechify in the end about everything her character has learned in the preceding hundred minutes. Such moments feel as clumsy as the sexual encounters depicted in the movie, and feel as if they only exist to provide context to a series of encounters that would otherwise only come off as easy jokes about private parts, body fluid and scatology. Compare this to last year’s underrated Turn Me On, Dammit!, which subtly used the visuality of its main character’s fantasies and experiences to convey not only a sense of place but an overarching and truthful point, The To Do List feels far too broad in its comedy, and not organic enough in its satire to make a truly compelling point about young sex.
If anything breaks out of this thing’s murk of good intentions and half-hearted execution, it is Plaza’s ability to do what she can with her character. Brandy is not a particularly well-conceived character in Carey’s script; too often emotions are telegraphed in the script when trusting the actor’s physiognomy could have done the job. Still, the Parks and Recreation actress’ signature deadpan acerb and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humility is just enough to salvage the character. What’s more, it augments the case for Plaza’s viability as an unconventional leading lady for a medium desperately in need of some diversity (she was also fantastic in Safety Not Guaranteed). Even if Carey’s movie is a bit too facile in its comedy to realize Plaza’s specific potential as a screen presence, it is enough to show how committed she can be. Just as Brandy moves on from her early, clumsy experiences to greater sexual prospects, I hope Plaza can now move on from The To Do List with enough confidence to give even better performances in much better movies.
Bottom Line: The To Do List is a lot like your first time: A potential milestone filled with early promise in theory, yet messy and bound to disappoint in practice.