Movies, unlike albums, don’t have the luxury of being “growers.” They can’t start with the six-minute ambient piece and work their way to the big hit. They’re constructed like Now! compilations, front-loaded with the biggest hits and designed to bombard the viewer into submission. “30 Minutes or Less,” the new comedy from “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer, is built like Radiohead’s Kid A (it’s inferior to Kid A, of course, but go with us on this). The overall experience is a satisfying one, but it will try the patience of a saint along the way. Simply put, the first 30 minutes are brutal.
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is not having a good life. All of his friends are getting real jobs and moving on, while Nick is stuck delivering pizzas. His life becomes infinitely worse, though, when his final delivery of the night is to schemers Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), who knock Nick unconscious, strap an explosive vest to his chest, and inform him that he has nine hours to rustle up $100,000, which they intend to use as payment for a far worse crime. Nick reaches out to his recently estranged roommate Chet (Aziz Ansari) for help, and the two decide to use their vast knowledge of heist movies to their advantage, and rob a bank. That, as it turns out, is the easy part.
Aziz Ansari gets raves for his work on “Parks and Recreation,” but he nearly kills this movie stone dead. For the first half of the film, he’s unwatchable, badly overreacting and stripping the funny out of every line. Thankfully, he figures it out, and just like that, the movie picks up, though it never exactly takes off. There are several funny moments, but the movie never finds its rhythm, due in large part to a series of loose ends (the fates of several characters remain unresolved) and one-off moments that have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. For example, the scene with Ansari and the girl in the car serves no purpose, other than as a setup to Eisenberg’s zinger a minute later.
Ultimately, the movie comes down to a comedy duel between Eisenberg and McBride. McBride usually loses these fights (two words: “Your Highness”), but he manages to make the dirtbag Dwayne almost likable, thanks mainly to his complete naiveté about a life of crime. Eisenberg’s Nick is somewhere between his characters from “The Social Network” and “Zombieland.” He’s well-meaning, but contemptuous. Michael Pena turns in a surprisingly good performance as the hit man Chango, while Swardson plays the passive-aggressive Travis almost to a fault. Dwayne clearly hangs out with Travis because he can be the alpha dog, but this makes it difficult to care about the beta dog.
There are the makings of a funny, exciting comedy here. (The car chase is two minutes of mundane followed by five seconds of holy shit). Comedic talent abounds, and the tides turn enough times to make for an interesting game of cat and mouse. “30 Minutes or Less” should absolutely be better than it is, but thanks to Ansari’s dismal first-half performance and an overall lack of focus – which is odd, considering the movie is 80 minutes long and therefore has very little story to tell – the movie doesn’t get interesting until the viewer is past caring. A few more “hits” on Side I would have worked wonders.(3 / 5)
This originally ran August 12, 2011 on Bullz-Eye.com.