Just as “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” proved women can excel in buddy comedies, “The To Do List” establishes that female characters can serve as more than mere conquests in a teen sex farce. They can be the carnal conquistadors, who are as vulgar, one-track-minded and hilarious as the guys from “American Pie.”
The uproarious first feature from writer-director Maggie Carey is set in the 1990s and follows Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), a recent high school grad whose type A approach to academics lands her valedictorian honors and admission to Georgetown University. Failure has never been an option for Brandy, so when she realizes — after an unexpected make-out session — that she doesn’t know how to kiss a boy, much less accomplish anything more risque, she must remedy the situation the only way she knows how. She opens her Trapper Keeper and creates a chart of all the sexual skills she has yet to master, along with blank spaces for notes and the names of the lucky guys who will aid in her escapades. And with a little work, by summer’s end, she will no longer be a virgin.
With the help of her promiscuous sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), Brandy comes up with a list, most of which the academic superstar doesn’t understand (and nearly all of which can’t be printed here). This being before the age of Internet enlightenment and debauchery, the former mathlete must rely on an encyclopedia, a dictionary and her two best friends to decipher the meanings of the occasionally elegant-sounding euphemisms.
Meanwhile, a love triangle forms between Brandy, her science partner, Cameron (Johnny Simmons), and the college guy Brandy falls for as soon as she hears him warble an acoustic rendition of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” His name is Rusty Waters (played by Scott Porter), and he happens to work as a lifeguard at the pool where Brandy and Cameron also secured summer posts.
Much of the film’s comedy emerges from Brandy’s perfectionist tendencies and deadpan discussion of lewd acts, but the ’90s setting also serves as a running joke. That could limit the appeal for those that came of age before or after the decade. The film is exacting in its depiction of the era of dot matrix printers and clear plastic telephones, scrunchies and skorts. But just when the movie runs the risk of turning into a cinematic Buzzfeed list, it thankfully stops winking at the audience.
It’s easy to imagine “The To Do List” as a lesser movie, had the casting not been so spot-on. Nearly every actor seems optimally suited for his or her role, from Connie Britton and the wonderful Clark Gregg, who play Brandy’s parents, to Bill Hader as the man-child manager of the swimming pool (and the writer-director’s real-life husband). Plaza, meanwhile, proves she can flip a switch from a character with few preoccupations on “Parks and Recreation” to one who obsesses over every detail. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the 29-year-old can pass for a teenager. Even Simmons, who plays the straight man, proves he can land slapstick humor, whether he’s running around in Tevas and socks or trying to disentangle himself from an automatic seatbelt.
The one thing “The To Do List” lacks is emotion. Carey is wise not to let the movie get bogged down by too much drama, but Brandy’s scientific approach to losing her virginity makes her seem almost robotic. That being said, it’s an amusing twist that the most emotional characters are Cameron and Brandy’s father. It’s just one of the inspired choices that subverts the typical gender roles and declares that boys don’t need to be the only ones having fun in an ultra-crass comedy.