When Zombieland opened October 2009, I had my doubts. Zombies were reaching a toxic saturation point in pop culture, and Shaun of the Dead was only five years old -- why bother? But the movie proved me wrong, starting with well-realized, funny characters, and expanding to cool directorial flourishes like on-screen rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse and an awesome slow-motion opening credit sequence set to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Now director Ruben Fleischer has re-teamed with star Jesse Eisenberg for the R-rated comedy 30 Minutes or Less in the middle of a summer packed with R-rated comedy. Fleischer seems less interested in putting his stamp on this material, which is disappointing, but if you're suffering from a similar exhaustion as I was with Zombieland, there are more than enough laughs in the movie overall to justify a ticket.
Eisenberg plays Nick, a twenty-something slacker living in Grand Rapids, MI, still sneaking by on a minimum-wage pizza delivery job while his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) has moved from substitute teaching to full-time, and his girlfriend Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) -- also Chet's twin sister -- is gearing up for a job offer in Atlanta. One evening, forced to go out on a final run, Nick is attacked by two thugs in gorilla masks and knocked unconscious. The two men, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), are plotting to knock off Dwayne's dad "The Major" (Fred Ward) so Dwayne can inherit some of his father's Lotto winnings. Rather than do the deed themselves, they hire a $10,000 hitman named Chango (Michael Peña), and to pay him off, they strap a bomb to Nick and give him ten hours to rob a bank, or they blow him up. Nick enlists Chet's help, and off they go.
The controversy in the last couple of weeks is whether 30 Minutes or Less is based off of the story of Brian Wells, a real-life pizza delivery guy who robbed a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, a bomb that later exploded and killed him on live television while the police just watched (the guys who attached the bomb would both go on to testify that Wells was in on the crime, under the impression everything would be the same, except it wouldn't be a real bomb). Although it seems wholly possible that Fleischer and the cast committed to the project without knowing (I've known this movie was coming out for more than a year and didn't hear about Wells until two weeks ago), there's no question the writers had full knowledge of the real crime, given the convoluted, true-to-life detail about Dwayne and Travis killing "The Major" for his Lotto money rather than just wanting the bank robbery cash. On the other hand, 30 Minutes or Less is the kind of movie where characters survive a car accident with one tiny piece of glass in somebody's shoulder; everything that happens feels so far removed from "reality" that it's hard to get too worked up about it.
The most disappointing thing about 30 Minutes is that Fleischer exhibits significantly less directorial style. He still has a fun opening credit sequence (set to The Hives), and the film looks fine and moves at a good pace (including the bank robbery and subsequent car chase in the middle of the film), without any confusing or over-cut sequences, but it lacks that flair that made Zombieland feel unique. This is a small movie where small characters have small conflicts, and there's never a sense that we're supposed to relate and care about Nick or Chet in the way Zombieland invests in Columbus and Tallahassee. Additionally, the first half of 30 Minutes is almost entirely devoted to crude sex comedy that feels less like it's ingrained in the film as opposed to laid on top of it, as if someone at the studio requested an extra layer of low-brow humor as the finishing touch.
However, once Nick's recruited Chet and the two are off to rob the bank, the film takes off, almost entirely on the shoulders of co-star Aziz Ansari. McBride and Swardson are fine, but their comedy never quite goes as big as one hopes from seeing them together, and Eisenberg plays it mostly straight, selling the intensity of the bomb. But Ansari has no on-screen obligations to anything but comedy, and he knocks it out of the park, scoring one great one-liner after another without overreaching or actively hogging the spotlight. He cleverly adds consistency to his character by spreading throwaway jokes like Chet being hungry or his fake criminal name out across several scenes, and even injects some unexpected emotional complexity into moments like an agonized roadside confession to Nick about a rumor he accidentally spread as a child. Behind Ansari, if only for his limited screen time, comedy MVP Michael Peña is hilarious as Chango, who acts like a meaner, slightly dumber cousin to his character in Observe and Report.
Although there are a few slow patches here and there -- it's almost like a 60-minute move padded to 90 minutes -- but the 50 or so minutes following the bank robbery is one big laugh after another, leaving 30 Minutes or Less as forgettable fluff, lacking the character weight of Zombieland, while still bringing the same or potentially even more comedy to the table. There's a pretty obvious pizza metaphor there, but, you know, let's not go overboard.
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