30 Minutes or Less
Director : Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay : Michael Diliberti (story by Michael Diliberti & Matthew Sullivan)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Jesse Eisenberg (Nick), Danny McBride (Dwayne), Aziz Ansari (Chet), Nick Swardson (Travis), Dilshad Vadsaria (Kate), Michael Peña (Chango), Bianca Kajlich (Juicy), Fred Ward (The Major), Sam Johnston (15 Year Old #1), Jack Foley (15 Year Old #2), Elizabeth Wright Shapiro (Chet’s Date), Brett Gelman (Pizza Boss), Paul Tierney (Rodney)
30 Minutes or Less is a hyped-up comedic fictionalization of an actual event that occurred in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2003, in which a middle-aged pizza delivery man was supposedly forced to rob a bank by a trio of men who latched a homemade timebomb around his neck. The real-life story ended tragically, and nearly a decade of investigations and prosecutions turned up a complex web of mental illness, criminality, and conspiracy that to this day has not been entirely sorted out and probably never will be. Spending just a small amount of time reading about the real-life case is more than enough to suggest the possibilities for a great stranger-than-fiction crime thriller in the mold of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), but first-time scribe Michael Diliberti has instead taken a looser route, borrowing the basic idea from the news reports and turning it into a deliriously absurd comic situation that only works in fits and starts.
Reuniting with Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, Jesse Eisenberg (slumming after his Oscar nomination for The Social Network) plays Nick, a hapless pizza delivery slacker who is abducted by a pair of infantile would-be criminals, strapped into a timebomb vest, and forced to rob a bank. The misguided mastermind behind the plot is Dwayne (Danny McBride), a raging case of arrested development with so much pent-up aggression toward his admittedly cruel militaristic father (Fred Ward) that he wants to pay a hired gun (Michael Peña) to kill the old man so he can collect on his Lottery-infused inheritance. Dwayne’s partner in crime is an equally inane and even less secure idiot named Travis (Nick Swardson), who happens to know his way around a mechanic shop, hence his ability to construct an elaborate explosive device.
Once forced into the bank robbery, Nick has no choice but to turn to his former best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), with whom he had a recent falling out after admitting to having sex with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). Ansari’s high-strung character provides an effective foil for Eisenberg’s shaggy slackerdom, and when they’re at odds the movie has a fast, funny vibe that works. McBride and Swardson also boast an amusing chemistry, with McBride once again playing his unique riff on misguided machismo while Swardson plays up the fawning lackey for all its worth. Each pair has its own funny sense of vulgar camaraderie, which is given an additional edge via the film’s explicit working-class setting in Michigan, which enhances the various levels of desperation under which each character is working.
Yet, as a whole 30 Minutes or Less never quite works. For those familiar with the real-life case, there is something uncomfortably perverse about turning it into absurdist comedy, especially when the real events are so much more intriguing (the filmmakers’ assertion that they were unfamiliar with the actual case holds no water, especially since details like the need to kill a father to get his inheritance match so closely). The film’s comedic vulgarity is often flat, despite the actors’ most concerted efforts to find that fine line in which dirty becomes truly funny. Fleischer dials down the stylistic exaggeration he used in Zombieland, resulting in a film that feels strangely tossed off, as if it were made in between bigger projects. This is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments, but there aren’t enough of them to justify what is essentially a failed attempt to turn tragedy into farce.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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