' ' Cinema Romantico: The To Do List

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The To Do List

One of the most enduring cinematic myths involves the summer between high school graduation and migration to college. The foremost imprecision in these stories, however, typically results from the screenplay's need to make it seem as if these summers bring about Life Change, molding the protagonist into a New Man. Or, in the case of "The To Do List", a New Woman. But while the female at the center of Maggie Carey's supremely raunchy, 1993-set comedy does transform, her Life does not necessarily Change.

"American Pie" was set in the run-up to prom, another classic plot device, rather than the summer between graduation and higher learning, but covered the same ground as "The To Do List". There its quartet of male high school seniors yearned to have sex by prom to have summited said peak - uh, so to speak - before shipping off. But they were merely (mostly) good-hearted schmucks, whereas Aubrey Plaza's Brandy Klark is a socially awkward valedictorian taskmaster who doesn't drink.

Her BFFs, however, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele, whose comedic timing soars), drag her to a kegger where she imbibes one too many Solo cups and has a close sexual encounter with the mythically named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), with hair like Chris Hemsworth and a dedication to shirtlessness that rivals the Kate Hudson-era Matthew McConaughey. Suddenly, Brandy's sexual drive is kicked up a notch (or twelve), and so she does what any valedictorian probably about to go for a double major would do - she compiles an extravagant and technically precise list of every sexual act she seeks to attempt before college. "Pearl Necklace? That sounds classy." "It isn't."

Plaza is vastly older than the character she is playing, but then that's a staple of the genre, and Plaza is actually one year younger than Alan Ruck when he slipped into Cameron Frye's loafers. And besides, Plaza's age, in a way, enhances the role of a character who specifically feels older than she is, until she realizes last minute a la Diane Court that she has never "lived". This should pave the way for uproarious and filthy hijinks, and it does, yet Plaza's recognizable deadpan persona is precisely what makes "The To Do List" different from films of this ilk.

When she's giving a hand job at a showing of "The Firm", for example, she comes across like a Type A personality in a school science lab, not really enjoying it nor frightened by it, but just attempting to achieve the textbook result. Perhaps this is why the abundant lewdness is less over the top than identifiable, and Brandy's mother, played by a straight-faced Connie Britton, embodies this notion. Her character name is simply Mrs. Klark, evoking Eugene Levy's Jim's Dad of "American Pie", but whereas Jim's Dad was eager if hapless (like Clark Gregg's Mr. Klark), Mrs. Klark is eager but patient and helpful.

"The To Do List" unfortunately gets sidetracked in its side story of Brandy's summer job at the rundown swimming pool, run by Bill Hader (impressively phoning in a phoned-in character), which mostly provides an excuse to get Aubrey Plaza into various swimming suits which she can employ to tantalize (or not) Rusty Waters. And yes, there is a kinda, sorta courtship with overly polite Cameron (Johnny Simmons) in accordance with Cinematic Rom Com Law Chapter 305.

Ultimately the most important relationship is between Brandy and her BFFs, and it is the film's essential truth. Even if its DNA is in its gross-out patriarchs, it knows that the summer between twelfth-grader and collegian does not bring about as much change as the silver screen has led us to believe. Brandy may expand her carnal knowledge, but she is reminded that a couple boys she meets and screws over summer vacation cannot replicate nor signify more than what her alliance with Fiona and Wendy has cultivated.

The pivotal moment finds both idiot boys fighting on the lawn before Brandy, who stands over top of them, gawkily but mightily, reminding us that so many men desire to rule not because of megalomania but but because of insecurity. In that instant, she holds both those dufuses in the palm of her hand. She doesn't even understand the power she now holds. But she will.

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