Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: Mediocre "30 Minutes or Less" fails to conjure laughs or excitement

Film Rating: C–

I would love nothing more than to go the rest of the year without any more mediocre movies.

Seriously.  Give me a bad movie, something awful and irredeemable, or a film that’s good to great.  Just get rid of everything in between, because in most cases, there’s nothing more painful than a mediocre flick.  When a film straddles the line between ‘decent’ and ‘bad,’ it’s truly infuriating; you can see all the ingredients there on screen for something good, can tell that if the filmmakers put in just a bit more effort, the final product would be worth the price of admission.  Instead, a mediocre movie tantalizes the viewer with empty promises of something better while it flirts with being downright awful. 

We’ve had too many of these films this year, and Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less is the latest.  It’s not a bad movie, per se, but it’s very far from being a good one; given the promising premise and the amount of talent on and off screen, that makes its mediocrity all the more disappointing.  The few moments of true entertainment we do get are little more than empty reminders that film really should be better.

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Now, I use the word ‘promising’ to describe the premise because while it’s not a story that automatically creates laughs, it also shouldn’t be difficult to inject some dark humor into the material.  Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a loser who delivers pizzas for a living; Dwayne (Danny McBride) is a loser with a rich, mean-spirited father.  Their paths cross when Dwayne decides to claim his inheritance early by hiring an assassin to kill his dad.  Needing $100,000 to pay the killer, Dwayne and his partner Travis (Nick Swardson) kidnap Nick, strap a bomb to his chest, and order him to a rob a bank before time runs out. 

That could easily be the premise to a serious thriller (well, maybe without the “killing my dad” motivation), and has been, on occasion, but given the impressive crop of comedians in front of the camera – Aziz Ansari from NBC’s Parks and Recreation fills out the main cast as Nick’s best friend Chet – it seems like a perfect set-up for a dark, intense action comedy, something director Ruben Fleischer pulled off in his last film, Zombieland.  The biggest problem with 30 Minutes or Less, then, is that while it may contain some offbeat jokes and action sequences, it’s certainly not funny.  I chuckled a few times, mostly at Ansari, but that had a lot more to do with being in a crowded theater full of laughing people than any reaction I had to the film.

There are two kinds of jokes on display – dirty ones and frantic ones.  The dirty jokes are all uniformly random and meaningless; talk of genitalia, sexual acts, and copious usage of the word “fuck” are all thrown in for cheap laughs, but they get very repetitive and tired about ten minutes in, and do nothing for the film except earn it an ‘edgy’ R-rating. 

The frantic humor does at least stem naturally from the material, given that the plot does involve bombs and bank robberies, but it’s still not funny.  I really like Jesse Eisenberg – his last few performances, including Adventureland, Zombieland, and The Social Network, have all been outstanding – but he’s not particularly funny in his own right.  He works best as a straight man, and his style just doesn’t fit this film’s frantic and zany material.  Ansari, on the other hand, is terrific at being flustered, becoming funnier and funnier as the pressure builds.  Since Eisenberg and Ansari are paired for all the frantic moments, the jokes are very hit and miss.  Had Ansari played Eisenberg’s role and visa versa, I think the hectic nature of the humor may have worked.  Ansari could go crazy with a bomb on his chest while Eisenberg, better suited to be the voice of reason, would sit back and provide some sanity.  Instead, we have two actors asked to be zany, only one of which is good at it, and the results, while sometimes engaging, are not amusing.

Being unfunny is just about the worst thing one could say about a comedy, but it doesn’t help that 30 Minutes or Less is completely void of substance.  Without credits, the film runs a scant 75 minutes or so, though it requires a few major plot contrivances in the last act to reach feature length.  In that time, the plot more or less just happens, without any major surprises or revelations; given the fact that the protagonist has a bomb strapped to his chest, things should really be more eventful.  More importantly, those 75 minutes never give us a good reason to care about or invest in any of these characters.  Eisenberg and Ansari’s characters don’t really have any arc to speak of, failing to learn or grow from the experience (though one could argue their decision about what to do with the money at the end makes this a story of normal people going bad).  Danny McBride’s Dwayne is the only one who seems to learn anything – namely, how to appreciate his friend – but even if this ‘arc’ wasn’t half-baked, the ending renders that growth moot.

It’s especially disappointing coming from Fleischer, whose first film, Zombieland, worked precisely because it got us emotionally invested in the characters and their arcs (and was legitimately funny along the way).  Fleischer retains his terrific eye for visuals here – the film makes great use of a wide ‘scope’ frame – but loses the pathos, scope, and tremendous comic timing that defined his debut effort.  This sophomore slump would be disappointing even if Fleischer was the only promising talent attached, but Eisenberg, Ansari, Swardson, and McBride all have better things to do as well.  There are plenty of other fine comedies playing in theatres right now; one would be well advised to seek these films out rather than watch all this fine talent go to waste.  30 Minutes or Less isn’t an awful film, but to me, this kind of missed opportunity is like nails on a chalkboard. 

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