What a girl wants in 'The To Do List' ★★ 1/2

Amusing and crude, 'List' gives sexcom genre a female twist

'The To Do List'

Aubrey Plaza and Rachel Bilson in ¿ The To Do List,¿ which establishes that female characters can serve as more than mere conquests in a teen sex farce. (Bonnie Osbourne/CBS Films)

Uber-raunchy but pretty interesting as sex comedies go, writer-director Maggie Carey's "The To Do List," set in 1993, stars Aubrey Plaza of "Parks and Recreation" as a Boise, Idaho, high school graduate of sterling academic credentials and a firmly maintained image among her peers as a math whiz and a social zero.

With Type A organizational skills, Brandy goes about a crash course in acquiring some sexual experience prior to college. In her notebook, she compiles a clinical checklist of hurdles to be ... hurdled. Urged on by her pals, played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, the heroine hopes that all her intermediate second- and third-base scrimmaging with various boys (Johnny Simmons is the doting longtime friend and obvious boyfriend material, only Brandy doesn't know it yet) will culminate in an official deflowering courtesy of the local lifeguard stud (Scott Porter), her hotsy co-worker at the pool managed by a hard-partying schlub portrayed by Bill Hader.

Brandy's home life is cut from standard-issue cloth previously used in all sorts of teen sexcoms, dating back to the days and the likes of "Secret Admirer" in the golden C. Thomas Howell era. Clark Gregg is the right-wing dad who reads Rush Limbaugh in bed; Connie Britton is the polar-opposite mom, a nurse, freely dispensing advice regarding lubrication and stories of her own sexual awakening to Brandy and her insanely snarky older sister (Rachel Bilson).

As in the "American Pie" films, much of the humor in "The To Do List" depends on humiliation. The movie's designed alternately to heighten and/or soothe sexual anxiety and insecurity among teens. As with "Superbad," though — and this is why Carey's film works, despite a monomaniacal comic quality — the sexual banter among Brandy and her peers feels and sounds honest and off-formula. This is a welcome female-centric variation on a familiar theme, not the first to deal with a teenage girl's de-virginization project, but certainly a minority report in a field crowded with boys trying to Get Some, be the films good ("Superbad") or stupid and openly cruel toward women (too many to count).

Carey, strictly a newbie behind the camera but a talented writer, takes the sting out of the most painfully awkward sequences through the casting. Plaza, who recently turned 29, is nobody's idea of a teen, but her deadpan, slightly foggy way of plowing through a scene keeps the timing of the jokes unpredictable. Carey's constant '90s references ("Someone's been using their Ab Roller!") number in the millions. I wish "The To Do List" had a little more confidence in itself, so that Brandy's adventures allowed for more in the way of genuine pathos. But then it'd be an entirely different movie. This one requires Plaza's character to eat human waste floating in a pool (she thinks it's a "Caddyshack" Baby Ruth gag) and, according to the website parentpreviews.com, contains "approximately 250 instances of sexual language." But who's counting?

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The To Do List' -- 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language — all involving teens)

Running time: 1:43

Opens: Friday

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