Aubrey Plaza gets herself a whole new act in The To Do List, ditching the jaded, sarcastic persona she assumes on TV’s Parks and Recreation to portray a girl who’s wide-eyed and earnest as she takes a self-administered crash course in sex. Watching her play such a different character isn’t the only attraction in this rumbustious and extremely filthy comedy, but it’s perhaps the most entertaining one.
The movie is set in the summer of 1993, and Plaza plays Brandy Klark, a bookish, Hillary Clinton-worshipping high-school valedictorian who becomes fed up with the taunts of her peers and her bitchy older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) over still being a virgin. The hyper-organized Brandy makes a list of sexual activities to engage in before she goes off to college and eyeballs potential sex partners in her job as a lifeguard at the local pool. In the pre-internet age, she has to gather information from Amber, her own not-so-well-informed friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), and back issues of Penthouse magazine. No wonder she thinks “teabagging” involves making tea.
This is the first feature by Funny or Die writer Maggie Carey, and she’s not the smoothest director. The rift that develops between Brandy and her friends late in the story doesn’t ring true, but it does lead to a funny musical reconciliation scene that’s typical of the wealth of comic material that Carey comes up with. In particular, she invents enough awkward sex scenes to fill a season of Girls, including one between Amber and Brandy’s boss (played by Carey’s real-life husband, Bill Hader) and a shower scene with Brandy and a Kurt Cobain wannabe rock singer (Andy Samberg) who just dyed his hair. Encouragingly, there are slapstick laughs to be found in the nonsex scenes, too, as when Amber tries to teach Brandy some dance moves or when the guy who likes Brandy (Johnny Simmons) gets tangled up in his car’s shoulder belt.
Mostly this movie is a great showcase for Plaza, who has never been called on to do so much physical comedy before. Her surprising gameness wins her huge laughs whether she’s trying to masturbate — and doing it all wrong — or wearing an ill-fitting bikini to catch the attention of a hot fellow lifeguard (Scott Porter). She takes to it all well and puts an endearing spin on the role of a girl who’s more attractive than she thinks, even if she’s flat-chested, a fact that the movie has quite a bit of fun with.
I could end this review by pointing out how few films like these are told from a female point of view. However, The To Do List (originally entitled The Hand Job, by the way) is funny enough that it doesn’t need any special pleading on its behalf, and it’s considerably better than that other high-profile female-centric comedy this season, The Heat. Do yourself a favor and find a theater playing it. Or, as Brandy puts it, “Let’s get to work, vagina!”
The To Do List
Starring Aubrey Plaza. Written and directed by Maggie Carey. Rated R.