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'The To Do List' review: Gratuitous nostalgia

July 25, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

** (out of four)

I can’t remember a movie with more (not-always-precise) reminders about its time period than the 1993-set “The To Do List.” Marky Mark. Snackwells. “Street Fighter” for Sega. “Home Improvement.” Sarah McLachlan. Three-day video rentals. Zack Morris. Wonderbra. Is this a sex comedy or an episode of “I Love the ‘90s”?

The premise of a virginal high school valedictorian assigning herself a list of sexual experiences to accomplish before college has potential, particularly because so few films acknowledge female sexuality without succumbing to slut shaming or the notion that women need men to be happy.

Georgetown scholarship recipient Brandy (Aubrey Plaza) defines late bloomer—her inexperience has nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with social awkwardness and sexual nervousness. She corrects people when they misuse who/whom and misunderstands terms like “teabagging” as if she’s Amelia Bedelia. (Hey, in the pre-Internet era, a lot of people didn’t know a lot of things.) Surely many can relate to the challenges of feeling clueless about intimate activities, particularly at an age when sexual greenness may as well be tattooed on your forehead.

So it’s a shame that writer/director Maggie Carey (wife of Bill Hader, who co-stars as Brandy’s manager at the pool) prefers incessant, wink-wink nostalgia to making any effort to revitalize the ‘80s movies she references through Brandy’s lovelorn pal (Johnny Simmons) and a cast that looks (and is) much older than the characters they play.

Trust me: I really wanted “The To Do List” to be good. With supporting parts for Alia Shawkat, Scott Porter and Connie Britton, the film stars alums of some of the best TV shows of the last decade (“Friday Night Lights,” “Arrested Development,” “Parks and Recreation”). Rachel Bilson plays Brandy’s older sister, but pardon me for not saluting “The O.C.” or “Hart of Dixie.”

Yet any concept can go wrong in the execution, and “The To Do List” just reinforces how much more truth and humor “The Way, Way Back” generated from a gawky hero working at a pool. Though it has a few laughs, “List” often feels like a weak effort to do a female take on “American Pie” and “The Girl Next Door.”

Its best takeaway is that men can be as sensitive as women (or more), and women deservedly hold most of the power in sexual relationships. That’s realness that can be real funny, but it does not improve next to scenes like Brandy foolishly taking a bite out of poop in a pool, believing it to be candy. Gag.

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