There is a certain amount of nostalgia surrounding the teen sex comedies of the '80s that's as ripe for analysis and deconstruction as any other genre that turned into such a significant part of the pop culture landscape back then. And as we see with films like 'The To Do List,' there is some interest in exploring those ideas – what little there actually was beyond glimpses of naked skin, embarrassing sexual escapades, overbearing parents, and the ever-elusive hottest girl in school – that were typically part of the subgenre's normal conventions.
For its part, however, 'The To Do List' takes what at first seems like a unique approach to retelling the tale of hormonally charged teens set loose upon the unsuspecting world following the right of passage that is their high school graduation, by having the protagonist's requisite quest to loose that pesky virginity be told through the lens of a young woman, rather than the typical horny teenage male. To do this, writer-director Maggie Carey focuses her story on Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), newly graduated class valedictorian and all around type A personality, who after an embarrassing encounter of mistaken identity with dreamy college dude Rusty Waters, winds up putting together the eponymous to do list in order to enter her college years a sexually well-rounded woman.
In addition to telling a familiar story from a different perspective, Carey has elected to make her comedy a period piece, by setting it in 1993. From the film's lengthy opening credit sequence – which unfolds to the sounds of 2 Live Crew's 'Me So Horny' – it becomes clear that the specific time period is something the movie is keen on focusing on, and the expectation becomes that it will either be filled with some kind of wistful nostalgia, or it will make use of a clever commentary that juxtaposes the male-centric teen sex comedies of the '80s with this new female-driven version set just a decade later. But that's not all, Carey can also fill her film with all sorts of visual cues and gags like Eddie Vedder posters, trapper-keepers, and kids in ill-fitting clothing that goes too heavy on the neon.
While this may have sounded like another unique prism to filter the story through, 'The To Do List' sadly doesn’t use the time period as anything other than a springboard for pop culture references that stand in for actual comedy. At first, seeing things like cassette tapes of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and members of the wannabe hip hop crowd hanging around the background of a party wearing overalls with only one shoulder strapped is the kind of potentially humorous premise that one hopes will yield something funny and relevant to today's audiences, in terms of that shameful hindsight that comes from realizing how goofy you looked in your high school yearbook photo. But there's no such layer to the specific cultural references in the movie; they seem only to exist because they were easy prey and were perhaps relevant to the director's own past.
Unfortunately, if seeing these things is funny to the director then it's a shame that humor doesn't translate better into the film, because the only real use the movie gets out of the references is the pervasive sense that early '90s music is somehow the funniest thing in the world, a concept that actually gains more momentum when the film introduces Andy Samberg as Van; the lead singer in a grungy-looking, low-rent Pearl Jam knock-off. Being twenty years removed from the when the film takes place seems to serve no real purpose other than to make it more difficult for Brandy to explore the various sexual experiences that comprise her to do list. A recurring joke is that Brandy's uptight nature has made her largely ignorant of common terms and slang used to name certain activities that seem to wind up on her list through some kind of implicit knowledge where she's heard the term, but has no clue what it actually means. Most of Brandy's thoughts on these various terms result in a very literal reading of them, which is intended to elicit a laugh. In the end, the continued lack of substance or meaning to the pop-culture references only serves to weaken the already flimsy foundation the story finds itself on.
That's not to say 'The To Do List' is devoid of humor, because it's not; you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that didn't find something in the film to laugh about, as it boasts an impressive cast that includes Alia Shawkat ('Arrested Development'), Scott Porter ('Friday Night Lights'), Donald Glover ('Community'), Christopher Mintz-Plasse ('Superbad,' 'Kick Ass') and even Connie Britton and Agent Coulson himself, Clark Gregg, show up as Brandy's parents. But the film's saving grace is probably Bill Hader, as a burned out pool manager named Willy, who's on hand to witness and comment on most of Brandy's more embarrassing endeavors in getting Rusty Waters to be her first.
What 'The To Do List' boils down to is a sporadically funny movie that could have been loads better if it had put its perspective and setting to better use. There are a myriad of different possibilities for this kind of movie to work on a higher level, from going Meta, to a full-on deconstruction of the genre á la 'Scream,' or even a commentary on how the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s was also the death of many a youngster's sexual ignorance, due to the overwhelming prevalence of adult content that would soon be pouring from their computers. Instead, the movie disappointingly relies on parents' fears of having The Talk with their kids, while simultaneously using the term "backdoor" without any indication it's meant as a double entendre.
In the end 'The To Do List' could have told a familiar story from a fresh female perspective, but it falls short and just settles for being one of the boys instead.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The To Do List' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray in the standard slim keepcase. In addition to the Sony Blu-ray advertisement, there are several previews for upcoming movies and Blu-ray releases ahead of the film. They can be skipped individually, but you can't jump directly to the top menu.
'The To Do List' has a nearly flawless 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that does a stupendous job in delivering high levels of detail in every shot, as well as bright, vibrant color and terrifically dark shadows and black levels that help deliver exceptional depth. Contrast is very high throughout, and although there was likely some temptation to turn up the saturation on the bright neon colors that are so prevalent throughout the film, color is generally quite even and maintains a consistent balance that keeps the rest of the image in check.
Fine detail is particularly impressive throughout the movie, as facial feature, clothing textures and background elements are all on display. Aside from a few instances of soft focus, there's hardly a scene that goes by that isn't filled with the stuff. All of this helps to give the image a terrific sense of depth that, matched with the color balance, creates a very lifelike image that still has a remarkable cinematic quality to it.
Overall, 'The To Do List' boasts a surprising and impressive image on a movie that was shot on an incredibly low budget.
Although the film's soundtrack primarily consists of dialogue and musical cues from period-specific bands, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also does a notable job of generating good dynamic range that envelopes the listener and puts them front and center to whatever scenario is playing out onscreen.
As stated above, the dialogue is likely the most important aspect of the film, and the mix makes sure the actors' lines are delivered as clear and precise as possible. But there are also several moments where the atmosphere and various environments the characters find themselves in becomes an important part of the mix, and that's where the soundtrack really seems to shine. Early on at the kegger that pretty much kicks the film off, there is a nice sense of place, as additional crowd elements and consistent background music help to convincingly portray the kind of high school party atmosphere most viewers will remember going to on occasion. The also does a nice job of recreating the din of a public pool, and the sounds of a fast food restaurant's busy kitchen.
This is a surprisingly well rounded and robust audio mix that doesn't seem to leave anything out, and actually enhances certain elements of the film.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Had 'The To Do List' dared to do something more with its conceit and setting, it might have been one of the better comedies released this year. Unfortunately, Maggie Carey played it safe by keeping things predictably bawdy and nonsensically vulgar. The sense of missed opportunity is all around, as rising star Aubrey Plaza and her comedic talents wind up being used in all the wrong ways, while Clark Gregg and Connie Britton are otherwise tasked with delivering cringe-worthy dialogue, just hoping it will make audiences laugh. Although it's mostly disappointing, there are some funny bits, and with nearly perfect picture and great audio, this one is definitely worth a rental.