Writing my review for THE TO-DO LIST has been on my list for a little over a week now but I’ve been struggling to find the inspiration, or maybe motivation, to sit down, do it and scratch it off my list. Perhaps this is because my short term memory is seriously lacking and I should have just written about it sooner. Or perhaps this is because writer/director, Maggie Carey’s first feature was so thin, forgettable and unfunny, that I just have very little to say about it.
THE TO-DO LIST wants you to know very clearly that it takes place in 1993. In fact, 1993 is probably the biggest, most consistent joke in the entire film. The story itself, which I’ll get to in a minute, is practically secondary in relation to the lengths Carey goes to to situate the viewer in the appropriate period. There are dot matrix printers; there are devil sticks; there are no less than three references to Pearl Jam. Yes, we were clueless, literally, in the early nineties but this isn’t a movie about that alone, and Carey often seems so lost in the kitschy-ness of her own design to notice no one is laughing.
I graduated high school one year after the graduating class in THE TO-DO LIST, a class which is led by valedictorian, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza). And while I may have been a late bloomer, I don’t remember any of my colleagues at the time being as sexually ambitious or determined as Brandy is. After a sudden realization that being a virgin is actually not cool in the least, she puts together a list of sexual activities she wants to accomplish before she begins college. Brandy being Brandy, said list is colour coordinated.
Brandy approaches her experiment the same way she tackles all of life’s obstacles, practically and devoid of feeling. Why should her sexual awakening be any different than any other school project she’s had? Of course, as she gets further down the list, things start to get messy, because, as you and I know, and Brandy will eventually figure out, when sex is involved, feelings get hurt.
THE TO-DO LIST boasts an extensive and impressive cast, from Brandy’s besties, played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, to her lifeguard co-workers, Bill Hader and Donald Glover, to her hyper-sexual sister (Rachel Bilson). Of course, there is also a boy she lusts for (Scott Porter) and a boy she doesn’t know she loves (Johnny Simmons). While they all still manage to find their moments, this cast is often reduced to one joke characters, perhaps best exemplified by Brandy’s parents – Dad (Clark Gregg) cannot deal with his daughter growing up and is pretending she isn’t, while Mom (Connie Britton) is making sure she knows the magic of lubrication.
Aside from capturing 1993 perfectly, THE TO-DO LIST also prides itself on being terribly dirty. While none of these actors have any business playing high school graduates, they are in fact doing so, and the 90’s are not now. Teenagers will always obsess over sex but the detail in which this film goes into, is often only there for shock value and occasionally felt inappropriate coming out of these supposedly young mouths. While obsessing over capturing the period and pushing the envelope, Carey misses that the innocence of the nostalgia she’s created is in direct conflict with the filthy situations she is constantly throwing these kids into. In the end, her misguided focus doesn’t allow her enough time to get to “Be Funny” on her own to-do list.