Remember when Adam Sandler used to fill all his movies with stuff from the eighties, and thirty-something moviegoers loved it because it reminded them of their childhood? Well, ten years have passed, and he still does it, but audiences have now moved on to reliving the nineties. At least that’s the conceit behind The To Do List, which writer-director Maggie Carey sets in 1993 for no other reason than to assault us every minute or so with gratuitous references to old Macintosh computers, 90210 posters, big cordless phones with antennas, low theatre prices, the Roger Rabbit, Pearl Jam, skorts, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Home Improvement, VCRs, AIDS, grunge music, Bette Midler, “electronic mail”, and, oh, my God, we get it already!
Here’s another thing we had a lot of in the nineties: crass coming-of-age farces in which teenage boys behave like would-be rapists in a desperate attempt to lose their virginity, and we’re all okay with it because, you know, sex is the be all and end all of human existence. Hollywood has mercifully moved on from those as well, but, given the recent trend of injecting every tired comedy trope with estrogen, I suppose it was only a matter of time before a film like The To Do List brought back the raunchy sexcapade genre, this time with girls as the depressing degenerates.
Audrey Plaza stars as Brandy Clark, a socially inept high school senior who sets out to bed local college heartthrob Rusty (Scott Porter) before the end of the summer. Ever the overachiever, she prepares for the experience by putting together a list of sexual acts she must master before popping her cherry, leading to a series of unflinching gross-out jokes involving bodily fluids and, at one point, somebody eating poop. You see, our heroine can’t look up terms like “rim job” or “motorboating” because it’s the nineties and the Internet hasn’t yet become the world’s largest pornographic encyclopedia.
In a clever twist, Rusty turns out to be a perfectly ordinary guy, neither a catch nor a mistake, and I like how The To Do List bypasses all the double standards of its genre in favour of earnest if hilariously ignorant conversations about sex. Consider the conflict between Brandy’s mom and dad, portrayed by Connie Britton and Clark Gregg. At first, we assume Mr Clark a terrible prude for objecting to his wife giving our heroine “the talk”, but we soon realise Mrs Clark’s advice, while refreshingly open, holds little educational value.
Much will be said of the way Carey gives women back the sexual power, though it seems to me that’s the only sort of power Hollywood ever grants its female characters. Admittedly, The To Do List stands out from other raunchy comedies for forgoing any instance of gratuitous nudity, sticking to the advertised topic instead of trying to titillate adolescent minds with boobies. However, I found myself somewhat bored during Brandy’s lurid high jinks, eager for the film to come back to her relationship with Willy (Bill Hader), her homeless, alcoholic boss at the local pool. Those scenes showcase the characters rather than the slapstick and feature some degree of dramatic tension.
I have the same problem with every movie in the raunchy sexcapade genre. I just don’t care whether our protagonist will have intercourse before the credits roll or with whom, how, or why. If Brandy doesn’t boink Rusty this summer, then she’ll boink someone else in college. If her first time turns out a disaster, I have no doubt her second, third, or seventieth time will be better. If she does it for all the wrong reasons, well, so what? Shouldn’t the last time you have sex matter more than the first?
In fairness, this comprises the main thesis of The To Do List. Carey isn’t interested in rehashing the same old platitudes about saving yourself for the love of your life and respecting the sanctity of the hymen. Rather, she means to expose the impossible standards we set for our children’s sexual development, and there’s something genuinely endearing about the way Brandy’s sister, Amber (Rachel Bilson), can wish, “Have a good penis!” without judgment or irony. I’m just frustrated that it took the movie over an hour and a half to reach this conclusion, perhaps demonstrating that our attitude toward sex hasn’t really changed since the nineties.