Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bombs Away

Oh, well. They can't all be Zombieland. The 2009 feature film debut for director Ruben Fleischer was a surprise hit, coming in number one at the box office and going on to become the highest-grossing zombie movie in the United States. It's success was instrumental to the subsequent surge in Woody Harrelson's acting career, as well as the notable rises of fellow stars Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and Jesse Eisenberg, who went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for his leading role in last year's The Social Network. So it was no small hope that I carried into the latest collaboration between Fleischer and Eisenberg, the buddy comedy 30 Minutes or Less. Besides the obvious Zombieland connection, the trailers managed to convey the same fun atmosphere as in its predecessor, with some legitimately funny bits plus the addition of Parks and Recreations's Aziz Ansari with some particularly witty dialogue and delivery. However, there was still some concern, as the same trailers didn't seem to quite match the veracity of the original (Danny McBride is no Harrelson, after all) and my friend Anne predicted to me that it would be "horribly cheezy and a bit dull", despite the efforts of the trailer. It was certainly something to think about, but there really is only one way to be absolutely sure.

Remember; friends don't let friends rob banks drunk
Things aren't going well for Grand Rapids pizza delivery boy Nick (Eisenberg). The girl he loves is moving far away to Atlanta. Her twin brother Chet (Ansari) is also Nick's best friend, but the two have a spat when it's revealed that Nick has feelings for his twin. He hates his job, and is perpetually miserable there. This all comes to a head when he's kidnapped by two masked goons (McBride and Nick Swardson), who strap a bomb to his chest and demand that Nick rob a bank for them, or else they will remote detonate the explosive device and him with it. Given ten hours to complete the deed, Nick calls upon Chet to help him rob the bank, and the two must put aside their differences and come together as friends to make sure Nick doesn't make an infamous hole in the ground.

I can't put my finger on it, but something makes me like Eisenberg a bit more in this film...
Sadly, 30 Minutes or Less takes an interesting concept (loosely based on a true story) and doesn't go very far with it. Most of the humor is limited to what's shown in the trailers, and the story's complete implausibility doesn't seem to disturb the filmmakers very much, as they are quite happy to present us with an unfinished piece while calling it a work of art. What the film does do well is emphasize the two simultaneous buddy comedies, as Eisenberg and Ansari share scenes of equal importance to those of McBride and Swardson. Sadly, none of it is as funny as the trailers would have led you to believe, with far too much dialogue more vulgar than funny and lacking in any intelligence.

He's seeing that next Oscar nom just fading in the distance...
If either of the buddy groups comes out ahead, it's the pairing of Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari. Eisenberg's monotonous drone is already getting a bit old, and isn't used to its full potential as it had been in Zombieland. Still, he's serviceable enough in a comfortable role that melds his Social Network character with just the right amount of white trash. Ansari bounces off just as many walls as he needs to be entertaining, and easily carries the best lines alongside perfect delivery, almost as if the role had been written for him (it probably was, to be fair). It's really too bad his best bits are exposed in the trailers, though he still manages to carry over a few surprises to the theatrical release. Less entertaining are McBride and Swardson as the bumbling antagonists. McBride is just crude, and while that might appeal to some I can't get behind his character's complete lack of sophistication. One can't help but wonder where Woody Harrelson was as this was going on, as he could have one-handedly jump started this film. I know McBride can act (see his small part in Up in the Air for proof), so the fact that he's reached his pinnacle riding a hump of mediocrity is a bit disheartening. Swardson is slightly better and a bit more redeeming, but he's really not much more than a sounding board for McBride. The real surprise of 30 Minutes or Less is Michael Pena, who doesn't feature in any of the advertising but steals just about every scene starring him as the crazy hitman Chongo, who finds himself between these pairs of would-be leads. With the exception of Ansari he's the best of the bunch, and with respect he probably could have bested his co-star if he'd been allowed a few more opportunities.

Wait, didn't we do the Planet of the Apes film last week?
Earlier this year, I suggested that 30 Minutes or Less could be the funniest film of 2011. Well, that didn't quite pan out. While the laughs do increase towards this movie's conclusion, it's barely enough to even pale in comparison to better, funnier comedies like Horrible Bosses, Crazy Stupid Love, Paul and Bridesmaids. In this case, Anne was spot on: incredibly corny and not a little dull, especially in the first half; it's a huge disappointment for Fleischer and crew, whose bar might have been set a bit too high after Zombieland's success. Still. it's not a bad option for brainless movie fodder, but with so many other choices littering theaters this time of year, it's one for which you can afford to wait on a DVD release.

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