'The To Do List' checks out OK

05:00 AM, Jul 25, 2013

Aubrey Plaza is Brandy Klark, a girl on a mission, in 'The To Do List.' Bonnie Osborne, AP/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Like the fumbling around of first-time sex, The To Do List ( * * ½ out of four; rated R; opening Friday) has its enjoyable moments but doesn’t exactly feel like a peak experience.

High school coming-of-age sex comedies are a Hollywood subgenre. Such cinematic rites of passage range from the cleverly inspired — Easy A — to the inane — Porky’s.

Staking out the middle ground is The To Do List. Just as raunchy, though not as raucously funny, as Superbad,it focuses on a high school valedictorian seeking to break from her good-girl image.

Aubrey Plaza is well-cast in the role of Brandy Klark, a brainy, awkward girl who corrects a guy’s grammar even as she tries to seduce him. Plaza’s deadpan comic timing — deftly played in last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed and TV’s Parks and Recreation — is ideal for the role. Connie Britton as Brandy’s open-minded mom and Alia Shawkatas Brandy’s best friend have some funny lines. But there’s not enough to go around for a cast that includes Andy Samberg, SNL’s Bill Hader and Community’s Donald Glover.

Writer/director Maggie Carey has conceived a comedy with a fresh, no-nonsense lead character, then relies too heavily on gross-out gags.

Brandy is a resourceful young woman. So when she sets her sights on the sexual arena, she approaches it like a class she’s determined to ace. She makes a detailed to-do list of the “skills” she wants to master — the only printable one is French kissing — and “whom” she wants to accomplish the deed with.

The list is marked by stars, checks and notes to self.

Brandy is a fairly multidimensional character. Smart and driven, her hero is Hillary Clinton. The story is set in 1993, so the Clinton she admires is the first lady, not the presidential candidate.

Brandy channels her ambitious zeal with laser-beam focus: She is determined not to go off to college with her uptight image — and maidenhood — intact.

She solicits the help of her far more sexually experienced sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson). But the relationship between the Klark sisters consists mostly of annoying screams and name-calling.

Also cringe-inducing is the way siblings, parents and sundry authority figures walk in on Brandy or Amber in compromising positions. Brandy and Amber’s dad (Clark Gregg) sticks around to chat with Amber and Willy (Hader) when he catches them in the throes of passion. It’s meant to be funny, but it comes off as creepy

Plaza delivers some comic zingers that effectively evoke the era. She strokes the taut abs of the guitar-strumming object of her desire, Rusty (Scott Porter), and burbles: “You feel like Marky Mark looks.”

Over the course of the movie, the humor quotient ebbs and flows. Scenes at a local pool where Brandy works go from silly, time-killing pranks to stupidly gross, with unfunny quips about flatulence, vomit and consumption of human waste. A recurring jest about Brandy’s breast size also falls flat.

A message about the importance of establishing an emotional connection — rather than focusing on a clinical checklist — feels clumsily tacked on, then contradicted, then thrown back in for good measure.

With its uneven humor, The To Do List doesn’t fully live up to what it sets out to accomplish. But, in the wake of The Heat, this seems to be the summer for women leveling the playing field on the bawdy-comedy front.

It’s good to see the gals shoot, even if they don’t always score.