The most literal coming-of-age comedy in a summer chock full of them, “The To Do List” also offers that rare, raunchy female perspective on losing one’s virginity. Unfortunately, Maggie Carey’s first narrative feature is a star-studded but scattershot affair that tackles its comedic obligations as dutifully as its heroine pursues her sexual conquests.
An uptight high school valedictorian straight out of Boise, Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) has little time for or interest in boys, but once best buds Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) drag her to a real party in lieu of another sleepover viewing of “Beaches,” Brandy sets her eyes on studly Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) and decides that he’s the perfect man to take her V-card. Before that, though, this overachiever is going to spend the summer of 1993 brushing up on every other kind of carnal maneuver that she and her friends can think up, however ill-defined. (To her, a pearl necklace “sounds elegant.”)
After all, it’s not like she can Google her way out of these things just yet. Carey doesn’t skimp on her period-appropriate signifiers, kicking off the credits with 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” having Brandy keep the titular to-do list in a Trapper Keeper while others play on their Game Gears. Take those trappings away, and it’s basically “American Pie,” with an all-too-earnest parent offering advice (Connie Britton, in the Eugene Levy role) and sexual humiliations as something of a constant for our lead, especially as she shares lifeguard duties alongside both Rusty and ever-pining friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons) under the less-than-watchful eye of burnout pool manager Willy (Bill Hader, Carey’s own husband).
That’s not to mention Rachel Bilson as Brandy’s more promiscuous sister, Clark Gregg as their conservative father, or Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Donald Glover as volunteers for every [blank]-job imaginable. It’s a killer cast of comedians, but a suffocatingly crowded cast of characters, with Brandy’s regimented approach to tasks becoming an episodic blueprint for the film itself: cut to the girl friends, the guy friends, the parents, the pool crew, blather, rinse, repeat. Despite the ‘90s setting, “List” has the shaggy rhythms of countless ‘80s romps where reaching a narrative climax was far less of a priority than achieving a sexual one.
A shame, then, that the end result isn’t a funnier film. Plaza trades in deadpan sarcasm for constipated naïveté, but watching her bumble her way from bedroom to bedroom gets as tiresome after a while as watching Jason Biggs do the same. (Brandy’s well-intended exploitation of desperate dudes being turned against her once they get wind of her mission also evokes the far funnier “Easy A.”) While girl-powered raunch is admirable in principle, a meta-“Caddyshack” maneuver would have gone a step too far for either gender.
The biggest laughs tend to come by way of the odd non sequitur, like Willy threatening to call a character’s parents until he has to admit that he doesn’t actually know their number, or a grossly inspired solution to supposedly discreet movie-theater hijinks. Each scene is lit like a sitcom; every life lesson comes from a mile away. Much like Brandy, “List” tries and tries and tries to get the job done, but frankly, the satisfaction only ever comes in spurts.
SCORE: 5.7 / 10