“It’s a comedy and it’s not that dark, there’s not much darkness,” says Ruben Fleischer of 30 Minutes or Less. He’s been making this case when asked to discuss the similarities between his movie’s plot and the disturbing story of Brian Wells, the Eerie, Pennsylvania pizza deliveryman who, in 2003, had a bomb locked onto his neck and robbed a bank, all the while claiming he was forced to do so.
Though Fleischer protests, “There’s not really a connection to the movie and the case you’re referring to,” it’s hard to forget Wells as you watch Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a blithe stoner and pizza delivery person who is forced—by Danny McBride as Dwayne, a miserable boy-man with a grudge against his hard-ass marine-corps dad (Fred Ward)—to wear a bomb-vest and rob a bank. This detail coincides with claims by Wells’ own family, who insist, despite his posthumous conviction for conspiracy and bank robbery, that he was innocent, that the story he told police while they did nothing to disarm the bomb was true. But the movie plot does not replicate another detail, that Wells exploded while television news cameras were rolling.
Instead of such horrifying particulars, the movie offers something like comedy. And it is inevitably “dark,” no matter what Fleischer says, though this tinge has less to do with the premise than with current trends in R-rated comedy: the language is coarse, the situations are grisly, and the relationships—if that’s what you want to call them—are pathetic.
The jokes emerge mostly in Nick’s efforts to figure a way out of his predicament, that is, arguing with his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), as well as groveling before Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Nick Swardson), the designated geek who actually builds the bomb, even as he flashes a rudimentary conscience when the plot calls for it. In the case of Chet, the back-and-forthing begins when Nick lets slip that back on high school graduation night, he slept with Chet’s twin sister, the lovely and generally irrelevant Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). As Chet points out, this is not unrelated to sleeping with him, leading to a brief pause, unhappy faces, and adamant agreement that they’re both straight.
The same sort of agreement underlies Travis and Dwayne’s partnership: they shoot at watermelons with crossbows, they hate the Major, they compete with and abuse one another, and most of all, they affirm their straightness. Dwayne’s sexuality seems particularly at issue, so he declares his lust for a lap dancer called Juicy (Bianca Kajlich). Indeed, it is her suggestion that he have his father killed that jumpstarts Dwayne’s plot, his employment of the killer Chango (Michael Peña) as well as his subsequent inability to keep control of anything that happens next. For, no surprise, Chango’s a hothead, eager to expand the mayhem in even the most violent circumstances.
Chango’s at once the foremost outsider and the exemplary participant in 30 Minutes or Less. Like the other boys, he has a stake in displaying his boyness. But his audience is random, rather than targeted. Because he’ll beat down, injure or murder anyone he comes across, he’s both unpredictable and utterly prosaic. Nick, not exactly by contrast, is less inclined to violence per se: he manages it in order to survive and indeed, become the film’s hero, but he’s a nerd about it even as he shows some remarkable capacity. In this, he’s the opposite of both psycho Chango and demented Dwayne, strangely sweet and appealing even as his selfishness and brutishness are revealed.
It’s Dwayne who presents as the primary villain. And because Nick is the anti-Dwayne—who is so desperately, so Danny-McBrideishly repulsive—he is your stand-in. You share his surprise, you imagine his anxiety, and you cheer for his triumph. As in Fleischer’s Zombieland, Eisenberg is a helpful type for all this audience identifying: he’s charmingly flabbergasted by the extraordinary developments that make him a victim and a killer (though neither he nor the movie is as clever as Zombieland, which featured some innovative structural gags, like freeze frames, voiceovers, and floating illustrative text, not to mention Bill Murray).
Nick’s foul-mouthed yammering ensures you get the joke, that you don’t read tragedy into this comedy. But it doesn’t make up for the film’s essential banality: boys fret, boys bond, boys blow shit up.