30 Minutes Or Less could mark the unveiling of a new generation of comedy heroes who get called upon to salvage unsalvageable scripts and redeem seemingly irredeemably slim material. It’s the kind of featherweight trifle Owen Wilson might have been called upon to try to rescue six years ago. Today, Jesse Eisenberg—and to a lesser extent, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, and Nick Swardson—are the doomed souls cursed with trying to wring laughs from a vast comic desert.
An egregiously miscast Eisenberg stars as a young man toiling as a pizza boy, even though he displays only slightly less intelligence and savvy than the world-beater Eisenberg played in The Social Network. (Eisenberg can’t/doesn’t/won’t play dumb.) His sad-sack existence goes from bad to worse when McBride and Swardson abduct him, then force him to rob a bank to raise money to hire an assassin to kill McBride’s lottery-winner Marine dad (Fred Ward). McBride may be the world’s most indirect criminal mastermind: He can’t be bothered to rob or kill, so he sends intermediaries out on his behalf. Ansari costars as Eisenberg’s best friend and reluctant partner in crime.
Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) sometimes seems to be aiming for a meta-meditation on cheesy 1980s action comedies, or commenting on the insanely convoluted nature of thriller plots. A film that climaxes with a trade-off in a junkyard has a rich appreciation for the clichés of the action-comedy genre, but 30 Minutes Or Less is ultimately so muddled and slight that’s it’s hard to ascertain what the filmmakers were thinking. For starters, they can’t seem to decide how straight to play the genre elements or McBride’s villainy. The film’s tonal shifts can be jarring: 30 Minutes Or Less has an agreeably shaggy, ramshackle vibe and a nice feel for life among the desperate and bored in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but when McBride and Swardson wear monkey masks to menace Eisenberg, it’s so disturbing it stops the comedy’s halting momentum cold. For the sake of verisimilitude, 30 Minutes Or Less at one point sticks Swardson’s dopey, broke Michigan schmuck in an Insane Clown Posse jersey, a nice bit of local color that suggests the costume designer put more thought into that one tiny-but-telling detail than the screenwriters did into the whole film.