30 Minutes or Less: Directed by Ruben (Zombieland) Fleischer

The new action-comedy “30 Minutes or Less” marks a step down for director Ruben Fleischer, who made a mark in 2009 with “Zombieland,” his well-received feature debut, which also starred Jesse Eisenberg.

Brisk, nasty, sporadically entertaining, but also shallow and inconsequential, “30 Minutes or Less” serves as a showcase for a younger generation of actors.  As Nick, Jesse Eisenberg goes from playing the brightest guy in the planet (harvard student in “The Social Network”) to a pizza delivery guy (and college dropout) stuck in a small town; in both films, however, he plays a guy who’s restless and uncomfortable with his position.

Nick’s buddy (actually former best friend since they had a huge falling out), Chet, is played by Aziz Ansari.  Just like Nick, only less so, Chet feels stifled, living in a small town in Michigan, where he teaches at a junior high school.

The organizing principle of the narrative is that of the odd couple, in fact, two odd couples. The youngsters are contrasted with two inept criminal masterminds, Dwayne and Travis (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, respectively).  The point of the story is to bring this quartet of bumbling fools together, in an original, inventive way. But, alas, the picture is only semi-successful at that.

The premise is extremely simple: Two lowlifes, wannabe criminals masterminds kidnap Nick and strap a time bomb to him, threatening to blow him up unless he robs a bank and steal $100,000. In desperation, with only a limited time to pull off a task that’s both impractical and impossible, Nick enlists the help of his friend Chet, another loser.

Assuming the shape of a road comedy of sorts, the second half of the story details the duo’s various encounters with the representative of the police, assortment of hired killers, flamethrowers, and others.

But this being at heart a slacker comedy, there’s an awful lot of talking and arguing. Nick and Chet bicker endlessly about their present assignment, their troubled relationship (in the past and present). The banter, which is not funny enough, takes place against a double threat: The duo wonder whether the bomb will get them, or they will kill each other first? We have seen it before, in the midst of a fast car chase or life-risking bank robbery, a movie couple would have the time to pause and discuss more personal and existential matters.

If you don’t root for any of the four men, it’s not because they’re fools, but because they are charmless.  Moreover, it’s hard to see what made Nick and Chet close friends in the past, because they don’t have much in common.

Just when you thought that women have made a stride in Hollywood comedies comes this retro male-dominated flick, in which there are only two femmes, though neither has anything interesting to do or to say.

Bianca Kajlick plays an exotic dancer who gets involved in a plot to kill Dawyne’s own father (played by Fred Ward, who wasted ina thnakless role).  The other woman is Chet’s twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria), who doesn’t look at all like him, whose virginity was taken by Nick; we find out about it during one of his confessions to Chet.

The saga is replete with ethnic and other stereotypes, such as a Latino assassin played by Michael Pena.  It’s a tribute to Pena’s talent that he manages to overcome the shortcomings of his part and to render one of the film’s most effective performances.

Beneath the cool and modern surface of “30 Minutes or Less’ lies an old-fashioned comedy that evokes similar tales of the past two decades, such as “Midnight Run,” films by John Landis (“Trading Places,” Into the Night”), and most recently “Pineapple Express.”

The filmmakers must have realized that they don’t have enough material for a feature-length comedy, and so moving things around quickly they do the job in 84 minutes, which makes “30 Minutes or Less” one of the shortest films this summer.

Based on what’s presented on screen, it’s hard to believe that the scenario, by neophyte Michael Diliberti (from a story by him and Matthew Sullivan), was in the Black List, an inside-Hollywood compilation of the best unproduced screenplays.

Fleischer would like to believe that the bomb subplot lends the comedy a darker, more ominous tone, but it does not, as the tale is formulaic and predictable from the get-go. “30 Minutes or Less,” like other generic items of its kind, is based on the notion of placing eccentric and inept characters in dangerous and outrageous situations.

Fleischer claims as his influences John Landis comedies of the 1980s and the work of the Coen brothers, but there is no evidence of either sensibility on the screen.   For a studio-made picture, production values are at best mediocre, which could be a function of the modest budget and/or lack of savvy of Fleischer and his technical crew.

In the end, “30 Minutes or Less” is just a redundant, intermittently entertaining pictur,  pretending to be clever, and not particularly satisfying as either actioner or comedy.

End Note:

The comedy is loosely based on a factual case in 2003 of Brian Welles, who tried to rob a bank while wearing a bomb, and lost his life after the bomb detonated.

Cast

Nick – Jesse Eisenberg
Dwayne – Danny McBride
Chet – Aziz Ansari
Travis – Nick Swardson
Kate – Dilshad Vadsaria
Chango – Michael Pena
Juicy – Bianca Kajlich
The Major – Fred Ward

Credits

A Sony Pictures release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Media Rights Capital of a Red Hour production.

Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller, Jeremy Kramer.

Executive producers, Monica Levinson, Brian Levy.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer.

Screenplay, Michael Diliberti