Put This Movie on your “To-Do List”

I don’t like sex comedies. I’ve always felt like sex scenes aren’t necessary, as long as the dialogue is rich. The possible themes surrounding sex are so few that every few years I see directors recycling other directors’ old material and I’ve just never understood the humor — probably because a lot of sex comedies, especially coming-of-age sex comedies, are written or directed by men, starring men. Cult classics like “American Pie” and “Superbad,” for example, always seem to rely on male-related humor, and some of that humor objectifies women.

Courtesy of CBS Films

Courtesy of CBS Films

So when I saw a preview for “The To Do List,” I knew watching it was something I’d have to put on my to do list. Yes, it does appear to have that same tired theme associated with growing up: the protagonist embarks on a crazy rollercoaster of a quest to lose their virginity — but everything else is new. The protagonist? She’s a woman. The director? Also a woman. Are there men in it? Yes, but none of them are needed for our heroine to have her happy ending.

In Maggie Carey’s directorial debut, “The To Do List” stars “Park and Rec’s” own Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, the overachieving valedictorian of her Boise, Idaho high school, circa 1993, who decides to achieve a little more before she starts college by becoming as sexually experienced as she can during the summer. With the help of her knowledgable older sister and two best friends, Brandy scraps her college preparation list (littered with items like “buy a wastebasket”) in favor of a new, more colorful list full of various sexual activities, many of which she has never even heard of.

Plaza easily fits into the role of the grammar-correcting, Hillary Clinton-loving straight-A student. The only problem is, so could any other actress. There’s nothing too dynamic about Brandy’s character other than the fact that she’s driven enough to do anything to complete her self-made list, and that’s already made quite clear in the beginning. Instead, most of the funny one-liners and character depth comes from the surrounding cast, which is a shame considering Plaza is a talented actress who could have done a lot more with her role. However, I was content enough with knowing that Brandy was not written as sex-crazy as her teen sex comedy predecessors, but just as ambition-crazy.

Bill Hader’s performance as Willy, Brandy’s deadbeat boss at the local swimming pool she works at during her sexcapades, is worthy of some kind of award for best supporting actor. Whether he’s yelling insults at Brandy  obnoxiously through the megaphone always at his side (“You’re the president of the itty bitty titty committee!”) or showing up at her house to make sure she’s okay, Hader is able to give Willy some depth as a man who is capable of so much more than he gives himself credit for.

It’s no argument that Carey has brought in an all-star cast. “Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat is one of Brandy’s sarcastic yet lovable best friends, Andy Samberg makes a brief appearance as a wannabe rockstar, and Connie Britton brings the almost-ridiculous film back to earth as Brandy’s very open — but still authoritative — mother. I only wish that these actors were given more screen time.

Perhaps Carey could have shortened the raunchy sex scenes? I understand where the length is needed to make things sufficiently awkward, but Plaza can do that all on her own. The humor in these scenes was also a bit drawn out, often with one joke carrying on throughout the entire scene. However, there were a few witty ’90s references involving VCRs and Bill Clinton thrown in that I appreciated.

But where the humor is lacking, the overall message of the film makes up for it — in double. “The To Do List” seems to be the only teen sex comedy I can think of that stars a female who, like almost all her male counterparts, doesn’t have to face the consequences of her promiscious actions. “Easy A’s” Olive is harassed and loses all of her friends based on rumors. “Juno’s” Juno gets pregnant. But in this movie, Brandy faces no objectifications and because of it, she’s able to see sex for what it really is: both important and unimportant.

Carey not only empowers her female lead and celebrates her sexuality, but focuses realistically on sex as  whatever you make it out to be. To hell with sex as either something that blocks your path to manhood or is the most important gift you can give; according to “The To Do List,” the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. Now that’s something Jim Levenstein can’t teach you.

 

RECOMMENDED: Only if you’re looking for a straight-up comedy, no romance here!