Depending on how fondly you remember the ’90s and how much deeply a love you hold for raunchy comedies, The To Do List will either play out as a hilarious nostalgia trip or a tiresome, reference-soaked annoyance. Much of the film’s humor is derived from either sexual references or references to the 1990s, and whether you enjoy it will depend largely on whether or not you’re in the mood to deal with both of these. Your tolerance for clichés will also factor in, because The To Do List makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel.
The basic idea here is to do a “summer which changed everything” movie coupled with a “let’s lose our virginity” film, except set in 1993 and focusing on a straight-A female student instead of the typical male protagonist. The female is Brandi Klark (Aubrey Plaza), who has everything going for her heading into college, except for one thing: She is a virgin, and everyone around her is telling her that this just won’t do once she gets into post-secondary. She creates the titular “to-do list” which consists of many sexual things she wishes to either do or experience during the summer. She then sets out to actually do these.
Essentially what we get here is an American Pie from the female perspective, which actually does a lot to make it feel fresher than it is. Seeing the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Bilson, Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele go through this type of story gives it a different feel, and brings to audiences something that we don’t often see. Let there be female-centered raunchy comedies; they’re often just as funny as those made for the guys.
Part of the reason, of course, is that this is a relatively recent trend in Hollywood, and therefore still has an inherent shock value to it. You’re not used to seeing women talk and act like this, and therefore it’s either funnier or more offensive — but it will provide a reaction. It also has something of a truth to it. What the main character goes through in this film is something that both sexes have to deal with when growing up, and it will speak to many people either currently in that situation or who can relate to having gone through it in the past.
It should be noted that The To Do List was written and directed by a female, Maggie Carey, here making her feature film debut. The film is no doubt based at least partially on her own experiences, and as a result contains truth and insight. And, yes, it’s also refreshing to see a female lead in a sex comedy who makes choices based solely on her own desire, and who learns something at the end of the day, too — something that rings more true than the false sentimentalism of too many movies.
It also helps that The To Do List is quite funny. If you’re a fan of raunchy comedies and would like to see something a little different, this might be one worth checking out. The film continues to top itself in each scene, and contains so many moments where you can’t believe it winds up going to the places it does. Sure, it’s vulgar and can be uncomfortable depending on how you feel about people openly discussing sex (a few people walked out of the screening I saw), but if you’re fine with all that, it’s a lot of fun.
There are some genuine problems with The To Do List, primarily in that most of the characters are painfully underdeveloped and the rom-com aspect is about as effective at being a romance as a lion is at being an airplane, but in a comedy these are easy to overlook if you’re consistently laughing, which I was. If a comedy is funny, then little else matters, and I think The To Do List was really funny.
The jury’s still out on whether or not Aubrey Plaza is a quote-unquote good actor, but she’s intelligent and funny and definitely works in this sort of role. This is only her second leading role in a film — the first being Safety Not Guaranteed — and while it’s not much of a stretch for her to play, there’s a reason she was cast, and it’s because the filmmakers knew it would work well. She makes for a very funny lead, and her delivery helps make some of the dialogue even better than it is on paper.
There are also some fun and/or interesting supporting performances scattered throughout. Rachel Bilson plays the older sister, far more experienced with all things related to sex. Bill Hader plays the head lifeguard and the local pool, which is where Brandi gets a summer job. Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Andy Samberg have small roles, although they steal the scenes in which they appear. And Clark Gregg and Connie Britton play Brandi’s parents, getting some of the best back-and-forth scenes in the film.
The To Do List isn’t a film that’s out to do a whole lot different, but by changing one thing — in this case, making the lead character female instead of male — it feels a lot fresher than it might have the right to be. The result is a film which is funny and also quite insightful, and made by a director who has clearly been there and gets it. It might make some uncomfortable, and I have no doubt that a lot of people are going to have strongly negative opinions of it, but for my money, it was a lot of fun and I recommend seeing it, assuming you don’t hate the ’90s.