LOS ANGELES — The names alone of this summer’s hit R-rated comedies — “The Hangover Part II,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Bad Teacher,” “Bridesmaids” — tell you exactly what you’re getting. It’s a trickier task with “30 Minutes or Less,” opening Friday.
The title is a reference to how quickly a pizza can be delivered, but “30 Minutes or Less” isn’t really a tale about transporting pepperoni pies. The movie is about a pizza deliveryman who is compelled to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his body. It features a fair amount of violence and menace, and the plot shares some commonalities with a real-life crime that ended in death.
Several early reviews have been unkind, and “30 Minutes or Less” comes out at the end of a summer season filled with raunchy comedies, just as audiences may be starting to burn out on such fare. But Sony Pictures still has reasons to be optimistic about the film’s prospects: lofty test screening scores, surging audience interest from young men, the early track record of the film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, and the wide-open release schedule through Labor Day.
Even if “30 Minutes or Less” and the other new movies in wide release this weekend — “The Help,” “Final Destination 5” and “Glee: The 3D Concert Movie” — all trail the second-week returns of the critically well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Sony believes “30 Minutes or Less” could play to crowded theaters for weeks. The studio has been trying to seed the box-office clouds by hosting scores of free early screenings across the country.
“It’s a true word-of-mouth movie,” said Fleischer (“Zombieland”), who admitted the marketing “has been challenging. ... It’s definitely not the most obvious title.”
The movie stars Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) as Nick, a pizza deliveryman who is aimless in his personal and professional life. Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his similarly dim-witted buddy Travis (Nick Swardson) hatch a plan to kidnap Nick, strap an explosive-laden vest to his body and force him to rob a bank. Like darkly comic stories about crime plots that spiral out of control, “30 Minutes or Less” follows the trajectory of “Fargo,” “Very Bad Things” and “Shallow Grave”: What sounds like at worst a feeble-minded scheme to steal some money quickly turns into a catastrophe.
The screenplay and story, credited to Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan, first landed at actor Ben Stiller’s production company, Red Hour Films. “We thought it was a movie we wanted to see,” said Stiller’s Red Hour partner, Stuart Cornfeld. “It was similar to when we got the script for ‘Dodgeball’ — that this could be funny.” After some screenplay revisions to build up the Dwayne and Travis characters, Red Hour took the project to Media Rights Capital, the independent financier of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno.”
Fleischer, fresh off the $75.6-million-grossing “Zombieland,” joined the project. “It was a little less obvious than a typical romantic comedy,” he said. He promptly cast Eisenberg, who was also in Fleischer’s walking-dead comedy. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to play a slightly different character,” the director added. Said Eisenberg at the film’s premiere: “It’s rare to find a movie that’s very funny and has characters that are real.”
MRC eventually sold the movie, made for approximately $28 million, to Sony Pictures, which is releasing “30 Minutes or Less” around the world.
Monica Levinson, one of the film’s executive producers, said that even if young women are showing strong interest in the latest “Final Destination” thriller, there’s no reason to assume “30 Minutes or Less” is just for guys.
“I think there’s a big misconception about what women want to see,” Levinson said. She added that while the film might not have the star power of some of the summer’s other comedies, “it’s a very original story — it’s not ‘The Hangover’ with kids. You can’t compare it to anything else.”
Some people, though, see uncomfortable parallels between “30 Minutes or Less” and the real story of Brian Douglas Wells, a Pennsylvania pizza deliveryman who robbed a bank and was killed by a time bomb locked around his upper body in 2003.
“It’s hard for me to grasp how other human beings can take delight and pride in making such a movie and consider it a comedy,” Wells’ sister wrote in an email to the Associated Press. “I don’t think it’s funny to laugh at the innocent who are victimized by criminals, who care nothing for human life.” Prosecutors said Wells might have been involved in planning the crime, which ended in Wells’ dying from the bomb when stopped by police.
“Anyone who sees the movie will be able to judge whether it relates to that or not,” Fleischer said. “I’ve tried to distance myself from that as much as possible.”
As to the film’s prospects, particularly after a host of summer comedies have grossed more than $1 billion combined worldwide: “We’ll see if people have a fatigue,” the director said, “or are excited for the final comedy of the season.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.