It's been a summer full of comedies that succumb to the law of diminishing returns, from The Hangover Part 2 through The Change-Up.
Now comes 30 Minutes or Less, which feels like a comedy made out of Legos - or perhaps it's just that the pieces snap together so effortlessly that the makers assumed audiences wouldn't notice just how mismatched the components really are.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer, who showed bravura and promise with Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less (which actually is shown as 30:Minutes or Less in the opening credits) invites any variety of toy analogies. It's like a pick-up sticks movie, made from whatever came to hand. Or it's the Silly Putty movie, because it has the ideas of so many other better comedies imprinted on its surface.
Still, toys are an inept metaphor because toys bring joy (theoretically), while 30 Minutes or Less brings very little of any emotion beyond toe-tapping impatience. Bottom line: The jokes just aren't that funny. There are more really big laughs in The Change-Up than in this film. The best thing about this movie is how short it is (83 minutes).
Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as Nick, a slacker who smokes dope while he delivers pizzas for a shop that promises the food will be delivered by that 30-minute deadline or it's free. (A little context: Years ago, Domino's used to offer this same deal, but had to give it up because of a spate of car accidents involving overanxious drivers.)
Nick's main problem in life, aside from underemployment in a dead-end job, is that he's just had a huge fight with his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), an unlikely elementary school teacher, one in which each confessed to crimes against the other too heinous for the relationship to survive.
Then Nick is kidnapped by Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his dim minion, Travis (the invaluable Nick Swardson). Dwayne is an unemployed slacker whose plan for getting out from under the iron rule of his ex-Marine father (Fred Ward) is to have him killed - and then collect his inheritance, which is whatever is left of the lottery jackpot Dad won.
Rather than kill Dad himself, Dwayne decides to hire an assassin. But when the fee turns out to be $100,000, Dwayne realizes he needs to rob a bank to pay the piper. So he and Travis kidnap Nick, strap a bomb vest to him and then force him to rob a bank to get the money to pay the killer.
The problems are multiple, but let's just look at the two most pressing issues. One is the script by Michael Diliberti, who can't write a decent laugh line to save his life. You get the feeling that, when Ansari starts babbling in search of a punchline, any giggles he inspires are strictly his own, as opposed to the product of Diliberti's script. Whether it's McBride, Ward or Eisenberg, the writing inevitably lets them down.
The other problem is the casting. McBride, for starters, has long since worn out his welcome. His brand of uber-gross wit really only works in small doses - like one-scene cameos. Swardson, by comparison, plays his dim sidekick with so much concentration that he's often funny just looking dumb. And he knows how to make each line work (because he doesn't have many of them).
More important, however, is the casting of Eisenberg and Ansari as the trained monkeys chasing around Grand Rapids, Mich., trying to free Eisenberg from his explosive raiment before his captors blast him to pieces. But Ansari and Eisenberg are both at their best when they're reacting, rather than playing the aggressor. Eisenberg's energy just isn't right for the wise-cracking slacker who's driving the bus. He's better as the nervous passenger, predicting certain doom with regularity and sharp wit. He should be needling, not slashing.
So count 30 Minutes or Less as a disappointment, a movie that can't produce big, stupid laughs - and only occasionally the scattered giggle.
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