30 Minutes or Less Plays It Too Safe
Money-back guarantees feel like such a remnant of the old economy. Does the depressed consumer class even expect companies to make good on their advertised word anymore? But maybe the dream of free slices scammed from over-promising pizza parlors springs eternal. At least that's the game being run on Jesse Eisenberg's downtrodden delivery boy, Nick, at the beginning of Ruben Fleischer's hyper-manic 30 Minutes or Less — a comedy that knows it has to move with all due dispatch to keep from disappointing the customer.
After the red light-running Nick arrives late at his delivery, the pre-diabetic kids at the door refuse to dispense even a tip, and so Nick has to dupe them in turn to get paid. He manages this by offering to buy them beer, pocketing twice the cost of the food while swearing on his honor to return. It's a good reversal, since Nick, like Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg, is most compelling when he's scoping out others' weaknesses. The coup de grâce comes when Nick asks whether the boys like O'Douls. "We love that shit," they gush as Nick departs. Thus is a balance of trade established within the movie: scam or be scammed.
Meanwhile, on another narrative path, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson play Dwayne and Travis, a duo of even older going-nowhere types who, on the advice of a stripper, decide to off "The Major" — Dwayne's hard-ass, Lotto-winning ex-Marine of a dad — and live off the inheritance. Travis, a whiz at outfitting watermelons with explosives, wonders whether they're capable of killing. So they settle on hiring the stripper's hit man acquaintance. When she quotes an up-front price of $100,000, Dwayne and Travis elect to raise the funds by kidnapping a patsy, strapping him into a C4-studded vest, and giving him 10 hours to rob a bank. In approximately 30 minutes, Nick becomes that patsy.
Despite its broad resemblance to a true-crime story, there are nearly 1 million logical leaps made in the course of setting up this Rube Goldberg device of a plot — but watching the film clear each one becomes its own goofy pleasure. Completing the quartet of comic leads is Aziz Ansari as Nick's estranged friend Chet, who, even after learning that Nick deflowered his twin sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) during some long-ago graduation night, needs little persuasion before ditching his job for an impromptu bank heist. In one hilarious bit (that feels ad-libbed), Chet explains he's helping not for Nick's sake, but because letting his ex-friend blow up might one day begin to affect his "relationships with other people."
Had the movie committed to such an acerbic tone throughout, it might have approached the inspired amorality of the Coen brothers. But instead Fleischer and company quickly retrench behind the emotional lines of standard-issue bro humor: The man-boys can't communicate except by delivering kidney-punches and calling each other pussies, and yet male bonding is still one of the script's third-act goals. This sop to sentiment is disappointing from a movie that otherwise feels free to make a suicide vest into a comic device.
Relationships with women aren't exactly foremost in the filmmakers' minds, either. We're meant to believe that the experience of having a bomb affixed to his body makes Nick want a mature love with Kate after eight years of pretending their hookup never took place. He does eventually deliver a convincing speech — though it's not clear why Nick's terror-induced clarity should overwhelm Kate's competing job offer in Atlanta. Elsewhere, we're introduced to Chet in medias fellatio; Ansari gets his first laugh by squirming when the girl goes in for a post-climax kiss. If you're a female character in the post-Apatowian world, you'll take what you can get.
It's the cashier at the Family Dollar store who trains the clearest eye on the boys' gender politics, when she asks if Nick and Chet want some condoms to go with their ski-masks and toy guns. (Protection is on her recommended-purchase list for men who are about to "go rape.") She's a character from a more dangerous comedy that never materializes. Like his latest, Fleischer's Zombieland borrowed plenty of genre tropes, but paid them back with a self-aware wink. 30 Minutes or Less just takes the money and runs.
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