30 Minutes or Less
Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Peña, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward
(Sony Pictures; US theatrical: 12 Aug 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 16 Oct 2011 (General release); 2011)
When it works, which is quite often, 30 Minutes or Less is a very funny movie - very funny indeed. It takes a horrifyingly cruel premise and turns the entire thing into a bifurcated buddy comedy. On the side of ‘good’ are Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari. They play long time friends forced into a bank robbery by ‘bad’ guys Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. Influencing matters from the outside are a hitman played by Michael Pena and a fuming military father played by Fred Ward. Under the tutelage of Zombieland director Rueben Fleischer and with a solid if occasionally spotty script from Michael Dilibert, the laughs come directly out of the interaction between their characters, not their often outrageous circumstances. Unfortunately, when those silly situations take center stage, the movie starts to meander and misfire.
Tired of waiting for his mean ex-Marine father (Ward) to finally die (and leave him all the lottery money he’s won), slovenly slacker Dwayne (McBride) concocts a scheme with his explosives expert buddy Travis (Swardson). They will hire someone to kill the old man. Sadly, they need $100K to get this idea off the ground. Desperate, they decide to strap a homemade bomb vest to a clueless pizza boy named Nick (Eisenberg) and force him to rob a bank. Scared spitless, Nick decides to get his best buddy Chet (Ansari) to help him. Reluctant at first, the duo finally decide to pull the heist and get it over with. Naturally, they are badly bumbling crooks, and to make matters worse, the guy hired to do the hit (Pena) shows up, throwing a violent wrench in everyone’s already suspect plans.
30 Minutes of Less is a movie that really doesn’t require its tacky TNT premise to exist. When you learn about the real story surrounding this film’s flimsy narrative, you realize a certain level of incredibly bad taste (or claimed production naiveté) is at work. Luckily, most of what the cast and crew accomplish plays outside the bomb/bank heist dynamic. Instead, it’s all about the interaction between the pairs, with a few of the actors more successful than others. When working against Ward, whose a stitch here as the rock hard military dad, McBride and Swardson are fine. They have the right balance of misplaced bravado and soured offspring compliance. When they hang their head in schoolboy shame, it’s a hoot. Outside his domineering influence, however, their shtick doesn’t play as well. Dwayne and Travis need someone to play off of, a figure of authority to reluctantly thumb their nose at. Otherwise, they come across as lame and extremely lunkheaded.
The same can’t be said for Eisenberg and Ansari. They are perfect together, their curse-laden conversations and well-played putdowns a combination of old school boy shenanigans and raw real life angst. The fact that Nick is a smart kid slumming as a delivery boy isn’t the only difference between the best buds. Chet - a school teacher - takes his pending adulthood serious, so much so that when he discovers that his friend may have deflowered his sexy twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria), it drives a wedge in their relationship that 30 Minutes or Less makes the most of. Whenever the film focuses on Nick and Chet, it zings. Ansari walks away with most of the F-bomb fueled conversational confrontations, but Eisenberg’s jittery charms work on us as well.
If the movie has a main flaw it’s the idea that we care little about what happens within the crime. Since we think Dwayne and Travis are dorks and believe that Nick and Chet aren’t savvy enough to do a double cross (and the less said about Pena’s prickly cholo, the better), the bank element becomes nothing more than a crazy catalyst, a high concept way of keeping these characters together long past their cinematic rationality to do so. Besides, there are massive gaps in the plot and leaps of logic one has to accept in order for all the felonious hijinx to fully work. Chet could simply learn the truth, leave Nick alone, contact the police, tell them what is going on. They could then figure out a way to ‘defuse’ the entire situation. Similarly, since Dwayne and Travis are always somewhere nearby, observing the mayhem, some decent detective work via a subversive suggestion to the cops could nab them before detonation.
No, the bomb is the biggest red herring here, a device to take an already amplified action comedy and turn it into a white water whirlwind. It’s like a magnetic, drawing in divergent elements that would never otherwise coexist within a standard comedy. Since Fleischer isn’t twisting convention, reimaging genres as he piles on the jokes, he shows little true panache. He just puts the players through their paces, adding a bit of sparkle when he thinks the gags are falling flat. Indeed, there are long streaks where nothing gels: McBride acts the obvious buffoon and meanders pointlessly; Swardson’s underdeveloped sidekick sputters and sinks; Eisenberg’s anxiety overwhelms everything else and Ansari plays one too many brown race cards. By the time the forced romance is thrown in, we can start to see where things are going wrong.
And yet thanks to the profane personalities involved, because they find ways to bounce off of and into each other in entertaining ways, 30 Minutes of Less delivers at least twice as many laughs. With its breeze by running time, no looking back approach and joke a minute ideal, the film flies more than it flops. It’s not perfect, but then again, it would probably never claim a capability to be so. In a realm - the R-rated comedy - that continues to substituted gross out griping for actual humor, this film has actual wit. Unfortunately, it is often buried in a manic maelstrom of unsettled chaos. As long as we stay situated on the duos and their dithering silliness, 30 Minutes or Less is a light and airy piffle. Otherwise, it struggles to keep itself, and its audience from wandering off.