Review: ’30 Minutes Or Less’ offers up uneven fun with Eisenberg, Ansari, McBride

08.06.11 8 years ago 6 Comments

There are some films that are uneven that I have a hard time recommending because that quality destroys narrative tension or undermines suspense or just leads to an unsatisfying experience.  With comedies, though, even an uneven one can be worth seeing because of the laughs that do work, and that’s the case with “30 Minutes Or Less,” which features a strong cast, some big laughs, and a strangely thin script that feels almost tossed away.

There was a moment after the release of “Zombieland” where Ruben Fleischer was being offered every giant movie in town, and instead, he took a step back to make what is ultimately a very small movie.  Sure, Jesse Eisenberg is coming off of “The Social Network,” and Danny McBride and Aziz Ansari and Nick Swardson are all fairly high-profile names in the comedy world these days, but the scale of “30 Minutes Or Less” is incredibly small, and the film barely runs 85 minutes.  It is efficient to the point of being slight, and I think it is actually not quite ambitious enough.  The film winds down just at the point where it feels like it should be kicking into a higher gear, and the result is slightly disappointing.  I’d still say you should see it if you like the people involved, but expect a movie that leaves you smiling without ever quite pushing you over to the full-blown laughter that all that talent might suggest.

It is very strange that they used the real story of Brian Wells as a jumping-off point for a comedy, but it’s obvious from the very beginning that we shouldn’t take anything in this film too seriously.  Dwayne (Danny McBride) is waiting for his dad The Major (Fred Ward) to die so he can start spending some of the lottery money The Major won several years ago.  Dwayne’s got a simple dream.  He wants to open a tanning salon that is also a brothel.  He’s already dreamed up an elaborate handjob menu for the business, and he’s ready to go.  He and his best friend Travis (Nick Swardson) talk all the time about what they’d do with the money, but it’s starting to look like The Major isn’t going to die.  Ever.  And so Dwayne hatches a plan to hire a hitman to bump off The Major, but in order to get the money to pay the hitman, he’s got to do something crazy.

That’s where Nick (Eisenberg) enters the picture.  Nick’s a guy who is very happy doing almost nothing with his life, and it’s starting to cause real friction between him and his good friend Chet (Ansari), who is just starting his career as a substitute teacher.  Chet’s trying to become a functioning grown-up, something Nick seems to have no interest in.  Nick works as a pizza delivery guy, which is how he ends up answering the wrong call.  He ends up face to face with Dwayne and Travis, who have hatched a plan for how to get their money: they wire a bomb to Nick, then give him ten hours to rob a bank and bring them the money.

The movie never really stops from the moment Nick gets wired up, and it only takes a few minutes setting it up, so there’s a great sense of urgency to the film.  Unfortunately, that sense of something building is sort of deceptive.  There are definitely laughs in the film, and some of the biggest ones come from Michael Pena, rapidly becoming one of the most dependable character actors in comedy today, as Chango, the hitman who Dwayne hires.  Pena makes some big choices when he does comedy, and they’re risky.  That’s what makes it exciting to watch him work, and because you can’t anticipate the kind of choices he makes, the payoff is a delight.  The movie is sort of evenly divided between Dwayne and Travis and their story and Nick and Chet and their story, and they only collide at the very end, and for just a few minutes.  Both teams have easy comic chemistry, and Swardson surprised me in the way he modulates the persona he’s become known for in other films and TV shows.  He and McBride play well off of each other.  The energy between Eisenberg and Ansari is a little stranger.  There’s nothing typical about them as a comedy team.  Eisenberg is all nervous energy and twitchy anxiety, while Ansari has this bulldozer personality that feels like it’s being held back at times here.

Technically, there’s something almost ragged about the film.  I thought Fleischer’s work on “Zombieland” was much more polished.  The only real stylistic carryover from one to the other is the way he approaches his opening title sequences, finding a way to give them personality.  If this was just meant to give him room to work with actors a bit and get a little more experience before jumping into something as big as Warner’s “The Gangster Squad” next year, fine.  Mission accomplished.  But it feels like a step backward for him as a filmmaker, and there’s a bit of a feeling of marking time for everyone else.  I’m not sorry I saw “30 Minutes Or Less,” but it just sort of bounced right off.  It’s forgettable, and with a cast like this, that’s almost a sin.

“30 Minutes Or Less” opens August 12, 2011.

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