All words: Ross Bonaime
The To Do List is a teenage sex comedy that turns the table on gender ideals in a way that few films attempt. Instead of Jason Biggs putting his dick in a pie or Jonah Hill getting period blood on his plaid pants, it’s a girl being thrown into the depraved rituals of sexual coming of age. While this is an important reversal, the predecessors to The To Do List – the ones that this film is clearly trying to change the game on – doesn’t have as much heart to it as it should, making The To Do List come off as cold and almost mean.
Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy Klark, valedictorian to her 1993 Boise high school class, who finds out that her freshmen year in college will be like one big sexual pop quiz and changes her priorities. Brandy throws away her list for college preparedness and creates a new checklist of sexual experiments to help her ace the “quiz” that awaits her. Aubrey Plaza is very good as Brandy and goes further than the eye-rolling sarcastic characters for which she’s most well known.
For the most part Brandy experiments with Johnny Simmons’ Cameron, her former lab partner who has long harbored a crush on her, while she hopes that the final item on her list – sex – will be shared with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Helping guide Brandy through her docket is a fantastic lineup of supporting actors, including Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as Brandy’s self-proclaimed slutty friends Fiona & Wendy, her summer job boss Willy (Bill Hader), and a collection of guys also willing to help out Brandy that includes Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
In addition, Brandy also has her family, her probably too open mother, portrayed by Connie Britton, Clark Gregg as her conservative and naïve father and her combatative but occasionally supportive sister Amber, played by Rachel Bilson.
Brandy checks off items on her list with a clinical nature. As she goes through these items, there’s no emotion whatsoever towards her assignments. It’s likely that Brandy was more emotionally involved as she was doing homework in her senior year. Each new task she embarks on does have its own amusing, often funny details to them, in a gross-out comedy sort of way. But as Brandy sees these as nothing more as notches on her belt, it’s also hard to find any reason to also be invested her quest.
The To Do List’s setting of the early 90s work well for the material, since Brandy is immediately in over her head where if set in modern day a quick Google search could clear up any confusion that she has. But sometimes the referencing of 90s culture can become too much. The movie is at its strongest when Brandy is at her life-guarding summer job alongside the rest of the supporting cast. Here, the plot feels more believable and allows everyone to interact in this setting organically instead of the segmented way the film can sometimes feel.
Writer/director Maggie Carey’s goal is clearly to state that sex doesn’t always have to have emotions based around it and can be used recreationally for both men and women. But the way it handles this lesson in the film’s final third borders so close to mean-spirited, it’s at times almost hard to root for Brandy’s decisions.
Carey’s goal is to explain that sex can be fun and meaningless and The To Do List fills those same expectations. There are plenty enjoyable moments and good times to be had, but in the end it all feels a bit too empty.