True confessions: Zombieland, directed by Reuben Fleischer, is one of my favorite movies from 2009. It was funny and clever and innovative. I loved the sweet, nerdy hero (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network and Adventureland, for whom I have an enormous soft spot); the blustery but soft-hearted zombie hunter (Woody Harrelson); the tough, funny sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin).The movie winked and nudged its way through pop culture references and a cheery apocalypse, and gave us reason to root for its characters.
So maybe I'd set my hopes too high for 30 Minutes or Less, Fleischer's latest. But really: is it too much to hope for an interesting narrative, or a single sympathetic character, or maybe a female who doesn't exist just as a sort of point of contention between two dudes?
30 Minutes or Less centers around twentysomething pizza delivery boy Nick (Eisenberg) who, by all appearances, has pretty much given up on life beyond watching action movies, playing Call of Duty, and earning a little money. He lives in his native Grand Rapids with his childhood best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation), an elementary school teacher. Nick likes Chet's sister a lot, but she's moving to Atlanta for a job, on her way up in the world.
Grand Rapids is also home to Dwayne (Danny McBride), a middle-aged loser who lives with his lottery-winning ex-Marine father and hangs out mostly with the dimwitted Travis (Nick Swardson), the sort of guy who doesn't know how to tell a "that's what she said" joke properly. Dwayne hates his father—who, rather reasonably, hounds him to get a job—and realizes that the best get-rich-quick scheme would simply be to knock off the old man and inherit his considerable fortune, then open a tanning salon/prostitution ring.
But of course Dwayne and Travis can't pull off that kind of stunt themselves. They'll have to hire a hit man (unimaginatively based in Detroit). But that means they need $100,000. They could hold up a bank, but they're too scared or lazy or both to do that themselves either. Aha: a better plan—kidnap some hapless loser, preferably a pizza boy, strap a bomb to him, and blackmail him into robbing the bank. You can see where this is going.
One place it's not going—to play well, that is: In Erie, Pennsylvania, where a similar case occurred in 2003 when a real-life pizza delivery man was killed by a bomb strapped to his chest. The man's family is not happy about this film, and don't find anything funny about it.
They're not alone. Sometimes, 30 Minutes or Less is funny. Audiences generally like bumbling criminals. They make us feel better about ourselves, maybe since most of us suspect we are either kind of bad or kind of stupid, but not both at the same time. The jokes run fast and furious, as do the often barbed and funny pop culture self-references (the earliest of which has Eisenberg winking at his Zuckerberg role in declaring he "never checks Facebook"). The best bits of the movie poke fun at the way that we—whether in love, or careers, or even crimes—so often rely on what we saw in the movies to give us a script on which to base our actions.
But in the genre of crude comedies aimed mostly at dudes, there are two types: the ones that (love them or hate them) still manage to somehow have a twisted but clear moral center and characters you can't help but root for (read: many of the movies churned out by the Judd Apatow factory); and then there are the cringe-a-minute comedies that make you snicker like a 12-year-old at sexual jokes and yet are inexplicably yawn-worthy, far overstaying their welcome. This is, unfortunately, the latter. What will happen to everyone is fairly clear by the end of the first act, and all that's left is for us to wait around for it to happen and hope for some chuckles along the way. Randy humor does not an exciting plot make, nor do this bunch of characters, none of whom seem worth rooting for.
It's a shame, because given the talent behind it, 30 Minutes or Less clearly could have been a funnier, innovative comedy, had it exercised some imagination and stretched past what it ended up being: a pastiche of familiar Hollywood tropes, laced with vulgar humor, that leaned far too heavily on puerile wink-wink bawdiness than actual cleverness. Or, maybe, it could have at least attempted to throw audiences a bone with some compelling characters. As it ends up, 30 Minutes or Less is just another forgettably disposable raunch-fest.Discussion starters
- Dwayne is looking for an easy way out of what he sees as his problems. Have you ever hatched a plot to solve your problems that went out of control? What did you learn from that experience?
- Have you ever had a friendship that fell apart, like Nick and Chet? How did you patch it up?
- The film is funniest when it comments on our reliance on pop culture references to understand our own lives. What parts of your life are governed by the movies you've seen? How does that affect the way you relate to the world around you? Is this a positive or negative effect?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
30 Minutes or Less is rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity and some violence. The profanity is pervasive, including many f-bombs and a barrage of graphic references to a variety of sexual acts, both euphemistically and explicitly. A scene in a strip club includes some close-up female toplessness. Women exist primarily as sexual objects. The actual violence is more discussed than performed, though one character is shot in the neck with a pen-gun, another in the stomach with a real gun, another in the knee, and two are torched with a flame-thrower (one peculiarly realistically). Cars get hit by other cars. The premise hinges on a character hiring a hit man to murder his father for his money.
Photos © Columbia Pictures
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