The To Do List is the first movie I can recall to treat the 1990s as retro kitsch, from the clothing to the hairdos to the outdated pop culture and technology references. Pagers instead of iPhones — HA-HA! Frizzy perms held together by massive amount of AquaNet — HEE-HEE! The gags are obvious and easy, but they expose the ’90s as a period just as susceptible to mockery as the oft-pilloried 1980s. The fact that many of the references don’t jibe with the actual 1990s is beside the point. Writer-director Maggie Carey, in her first feature, seems unfazed by any lack of realism. She aims far, far over the top and still hits her target. The 1993 presented as the setting for The To Do List is really just the kitschy backdrop for the film’s primary purpose: to deliver some of the most outrageously dirty sex jokes ever to be given the R-rated blessing by the otherwise-prudish MPAA.
Recounting the film’s rather base desires makes it seem like this is just another lame-brained sex farce, like a psychic sequel to Movie 43. However, since the movie’s intentions are so simple and so clear — mock the ’90s and push the envelope many of us thought was busted open long ago — it allows the filmmakers a freedom to play independently of rules or expectations. The To Do List is a spunky, defiant, full-force romp, and that’s enough to recommend it. As a bonus, it also happens to be hilarious, sometimes painfully so.
The title refers to the list created by Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), a studious square-peg who is the valedictorian of her high school’s graduating class, but who is cripplingly inexperienced in the social world, particularly when it comes to sex. Brandy is like the female version of Screech Powers (’90s reference!), only not as edgy. But the moment she lays eyes on grunge-hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she is instantly compelled to change her sexual fate. She compiles the titular list, consisting of every conceivable sexual act, including a few that were not en vogue in the early ’90s. Her goal: get through the entire list before heading off to college in the fall.
As Brandy swiftly embarks on her “awakening,” lascivious hijinks ensue… though not predictably, since Carey’s screenplay has a dirtier mind than we expect, even after becoming familiar with the cinematic raunch proliferated by the likes of Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and the Farrellys. Yes, the chiseled hunk is Brandy’s ultimate goal, but he doesn’t turn out to be the typically smug jerk. And yes, there is the nerdy boy, Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who’s in love with Brandy even though she’s merely using him as part of her project, but even he isn’t simply a humble dork. These characters — and many others, as The To Do List flaunts an impressively deep cast of recognizable hornballs — engage in discussion about and the practice of an array of sexual acts that haven’t been explored by any film outside of the triple-X variety, often with cringe-worthy results. It’s that brashness combined with Carey’s command of unexpected situational comedy that makes The To Do List such a blast.
Most unexpected of all — outside of the film’s ruthless and quite unfair evisceration of ’90s culture — is that all this raunchiness is female-centered. As we’ve seen in recent years, R-rated female-driven comedies can sell tickets (Bridesmaids, The Heat), but The To Do List is the first to completely abandon the safety net. It’s frequently shocking and often tasteless, but it’s also consistently — and occasionally uproariously — funny. It could also rub certain audiences the wrong way, specifically those who don’t expect to see this kind of behavior from women. That says more about them, however, than the film, which is heedless in its bawdiness but carefully avoids exploitation, another sure sign the film was made with a female’s gaze rather than a frat boy’s.
As Brandy reaches the pinnacle of her sexual summer, one might expect the edge to wear off and the moralizing to begin, but that’s not on Carey’s to do list. There are no easy resolutions or false emotional payoffs — Brandy doesn’t feel the need to express remorse for her behavior, and neither does the filmmaker. That the movie not only refuses to apologize for its frankness, but rather seems to revel in it with defiance, turns this rollicking comedy into a screw-loose, cock-eyed feminist mini-gem.