Despite some occasional lip service (pun intended) to the female libido, American Pie was chiefly a boys’-eye view of sexual awakening; its interest in women’s pleasure came down to the mere mention of that one time at band camp. With The To Do List, writer-director Maggie Carey offers a belated distaff spin on the raunchy-sweet recipe, directing drooling desire not at the nubile naked form of Shannon Elizabeth, but at the rock-hard abs of a blond Adonis. Parks And Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza eases up on the thick, eye-rolling sarcasm to play a virginal valedictorian who spent too much time in the classroom to earn an education in the bedroom. (That the actress is a decade older than her college-bound character can be written off as a spoof on 90210 tradition.) Egged on by her experienced companions (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), Plaza composes a checklist of amorous activities, one that will ideally culminate with a deflowering by fellow lifeguard Scott Porter, a strapping stud who’s introduced strumming out an acoustic rendition of “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” But what of dorky nice guy Johnny Simmons, the longtime lab partner who treats her like a princess?
For reasons both pandering and practical, The To Do List is set in the summer of 1993. While this period timeframe allows for lots of cutesy nostalgic signifiers—Plaza gaining a firm grasp during The Firm, “Let’s Talk About Sex” on the soundtrack—it also lends credibility to the heroine’s cluelessness. (In the Internet age, a girl need not scour the Encyclopedia Britannica for the definition of “rim job.”) Like American Pie, the film easily blends the sentimentality of waning youth with gross-out setpieces, the latter epitomized here by a gag-inducing gag referencing Caddyshack’s candy-bar scene. As Plaza crams for her sexual finals, a supporting cast of horny dolts—Donald Glover as a cunnilingus-challenged classmate, Andy Samberg as a grunge-singing doofus—eagerly offer their assistance. The Eugene Levy role is fulfilled by Connie Britton, playing an eternally understanding parent. Meanwhile, pool manager Bill Hader portrays a decidedly less helpful—and less funny—variation on the summer-mentor figure Sam Rockwell played in The Way, Way Back.
Poorly paced and sometimes desperate in its designs to scandalize, The To Do List—which lacks both the structural integrity and sharp characterizations of the first Pie movie—won’t win Carey any screenwriting awards. But the film should win her some fans, if for no other reason than it shatters the glass ceiling of cumming-of-age comedies. Liberated from her signature snark, Plaza tackles the awkwardness of fledgling foreplay with screwball abandon. Her bed-hopping protagonist is never denigrated as a slut; she instead embodies a winningly laissez-faire attitude toward sexual experimentation, even if the boundaries being crossed here are far from taboo. (Basically just rounding the bases, Plaza never gets to the more adventurous benchmarks on her list.) And for all it owes to American Pie and its randy ilk, The To Do List manages to subvert some clichés, especially during a climax that privileges autonomy over romantic fulfillment. The film’s as clumsy yet earnest as a nervous first-timer, groping gracelessly in the dark for ecstasy and meaning.