Ruben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less is a film nearly undone by the uncertainty of its tone--both in terms of how the events in the frame slam into each other, and how uneasily they coexist with life off-screen. You see, it is inspired (very, very loosely) by the story of Brian Douglas Wells, a 46-year-old pizza delivery driver who was involved in a bizarre 2003 incident in which he was forced--by virtue of the remote-controlled bomb strapped to his chest--to rob a bank and turn over the cash to his kidnappers. At first glance, this sounds like it might have action/heist/comedy potential, until you discover that Wells was killed when the bomb went off, and turned out to have been involved (at least in some manner) with the planning of the scheme. Whatever the degree of his involvement, I can't imagine his friends and family will be too amused by the decision to turn his misfortune into a wacky summer comedy.
Screenwriter Michael Diliberti doesn't just use the broad outlines--some of the details even match, like the motive for the robbery, which was to finance the hiring of a hitman (here played by Michael Pena) to bump off the father (Fred Ward) of one of the kidnappers (Danny McBride), who would then inherit the family fortune. That's where pizza man Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) comes in; he is called out to a remote location for a delivery (in this version of the tale, he's not in on the plan), strapped with the bomb vest, and told to hit the local bank and return with the necessary cash. Nick is an aimless loser who has just had a falling out with his only friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), but he begs his buddy to help him pull the job, which appears to be his only option.
This was around the point where my movie-going companion asked, not unreasonably, "Can't he just, um, call the police?" It's one of those giant questions that the movie clearly doesn't actually want to answer, since the structural integrity of the entire picture tumbles down with it; the kidnappers tell Nick that they'll be watching him, and that they'll blow the bomb if he goes to the police, but does he actually think these idiots are monitoring his phones? Watching his email? Does he not notice the giant brown van that is following him around town? He could put the cops on them and the movie'd be over by the thirty-minute mark.
Of course, that's exactly the problem, and we must all be willing to suspend our disbelief in a silly film like this. But you have to make the conscious decision to overlook this distraction, and it becomes harder as the film goes on, because director Fleischer (Zombieland) hasn't made the right decisions in terms of how straight to tell his story. In order for us to make the logical leaps that the screenplay requires, we have to approach it as full-on farce--hard enough if you know about the real story, harder still when the danger and violence is played (mostly) straight, and when the comedy veers uneasily from car chases to pitch-black.
But it must be noted that even when it's uncertain in its aims, it is a funny film. Most of the laughs come from the presence of Ansari, whose Chet isn't far removed from his usual comic persona, but whose sideways line readings and inappropriate tangents are most welcome. Chet is a middle school teacher, and the single, short scene of him in his classroom is funnier than the entirety of Bad Teacher; his big fight with Nick is amusingly childish ("You? An adult?" he asks incredulously. "You had a Lunchable for dinner last night!"); and his sidebar, at a particularly inopportune moment, on the fiscal irresponsibility of his Netflix usage is a killer (and, let's face it, relatable). McBride and Nick Swardson as his co-kidnapper create a mostly inspired dumb-guy two-act, though McBride would be wise to start varying his regular character just a touch, because it's starting to get monotonous. And Diliberti's script creates some purely situational laughs out of the scheme spinning further and further out of control; by the time Pena and Ward were facing off, I was reminded (favorably) of the great, undervalued Lawrence Kasdan comedy I Love You to Death.
That's not the only '80s reminder to be found--and it must be said, if you're going to do a big smash-up car chase, at least have the good sense (as Fleischer did) to score it with Glenn Frey's "The Heat is On." As that sax line began, I was tempted to give myself over to the film (as similar music choices prompted a perhaps-too-forgiving response to Cop Out), because of an unreasonable affection for '80s action/comedy. And those movies weren't terribly credible either. That said, they also didn't tend to base themselves on unfortunate true stories, a realization that comes back at the strangely rushed conclusion of 30 Minutes or Less. I'm not sure which resolution would have been more unsatisfactory--what really happened, or the rather insulting, giant-loose-ends-left-dangling "happy" ending we get here. Unfortunately, by that point, it is another uneven beat in a picture that is rather all over the place.