There is a reason that there are no advertisements for the film THE TO DO LIST in newspapers and website pages in the UK. Britons don’t think that a girl who accumulates a series of increasingly intense sexual experiences, the ‘To Do list’ of the title, is funny. It took us long enough to accept that women enjoyed variety in sex – try the late 1950s. We thought the clitoris was a resort in Spain and that the G-spot was a place you ordered G-Plan furniture. Then there is the film’s star, Aubrey Plaza. Some of us have seen her in PARKS AND RECREATION and FUNNY PEOPLE. A few of us caught her first leading role as an intern who stalks a would-be time traveller in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. She’s not a guarantor of laughs. With her intense brown eyes that match the colour of her hair and her slightly monotone voice, she reminded me of the sort of girl who would set up the Sylvia Plath suicide club. Also, did I tell you the film was set in Boise, Idaho in 1993, the first full year of Bill Clinton’s Presidency? (Boise is a by-word for unsophisticated.)
However, THE TO DO LIST is more entertaining than a lot of Hollywood product. It presents virginity as a cause for anxiety from a different perspective. College valedictorian and Judge’s daughter Brandy Klark (Plaza) does not want to lose her virginity to keep up with her peer group or achieve self-worth. She wants to have had a catalogue of appropriate but consensual sexual experiences ready for putting her training into good use for a future relationship – or just good times.
The joke is that, this time, it is boys who are being used. Brandy is first turned on to the idea of sex but an accidental encounter with High School jock, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a blonde dreamboat (from a female perspective) with a Val Kilmer smile whose torso is described by people who categorise such things as ‘ripped’. Rusty is expecting to find his hot date in bed at a party, but goes into the wrong room and finds Brandy sleeping off excessive alcohol consumption. Only when Rusty turns on the light that he discovers that she’s not his date. It’s an odd scene to watch because we can see more than Rusty apparently does, so we can clock the incredulous expression on Brandy’s face, but we buy it. From then on, in the pre-internet age, Brandy wants to understand all about sexual pleasure. She wants to know what dry humping, ‘finger-bombing’ and giving a hand job is like.
Now, in real life, if you are a guy, and you have a particularly obliging partner, you can go through the whole list in one night. Writer-director Maggie Carey’s film takes just over 90 minutes and about half-a-dozen set pieces. Brandy has a rock singer (Andy Samberg) who has just had his hair dyed go down on her in the shower (cue runny dye). Her ‘skirt-cum-shorts’ get in the way one of sexual encounter. A kid walks in on her doing it with another boy to complain about a video game; Brandy’s date says, ‘don’t worry [about the boy], he’s not a person’. Brandy dry-humps across a lounge with a friend-of-a-friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and follows his lead in preserving a shelf-full of porcelain cats jolted by their exertions.
The setting is appropriate for a film about female sexuality. Brandy gets a summer job at the pool, where both Rusty and her High School science ‘study buddy’ and wanna-be boyfriend, Cameron (Johnny Simmons) work. The setting reminds viewers of this summer’s ‘sleeper hit’ THE WAY, WAY BACK. Unlike that film, the main character’s boss (here played by Bill Hader, the director’s husband) is an asshole. After pushing him in the pool in retaliation, Brandy is obliged to teach him to swim. Her bossy nature leads to Brandy leading to a strike back against a neighbouring country club pool after her place of work is covered in graffiti. The pay-off is a surprise cameo appearance from a star of another popular TV comedy series.
The problem with THE TO DO LIST is that the set pieces don’t take the character – or us – on an emotional journey. Yes, Brandy gets on better with her sister (Rachel Bilson) as a result and yes she assumes a lot more confidence by the time she gets to college. It is a story about empowerment, but you don’t quite feel it. You laugh but there is no pleasant after glow.
Support is provided by Brandy’s two best friends who work at Big Bun, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), who have a thing for BEACHES - cue gratuitous use of the song ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’. There is one attempt at gross-out humour, involving poop in the pool; it is out of character with the rest of the movie. Speaking of poop eating, you wonder how John Waters would have made this movie. ‘Defecation during sex, why isn’t that on the list?’
Reviewed at Cineworld Enfield, Saturday 5th October 2013 18:50 screening; they just opened a Starbucks in the cinema, but they don’t have filter coffee on tap.