Squandering what should have been a breakthrough role, 30 Minutes or Less refuses to provide Aziz Ansari his The Hangover because director Ruben Fleischer is too in love with a strange oxymoron: like his own genre-ignorant Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less is smugly asinine. Jesse Eisenberg returns as a fake-ass Michael Cera slacker, a character we’re supposed to relate to because he hates his job in pizza delivery. Fleischer’s habit of casting cartoons masks his inability at characterization. It’s a film that talks feeling without emotion—our hero “loves” his best friend’s sister which produces a falling out between bros—but Fleischer’s brand of comedy is ground level, so one-liners and rasslin’ stand in the stead of depth. In a movie of bombs, bank robberies, police standoffs, kidnappings and car collisions, the cheap laugh is the only goal and nothing—emotion or otherwise—is at stake. 30 Minutes or Less is a film that seems undoubtedly influenced by Todd Phillips, but one look at Due Date exposes how small moments of real pain enhance the slapstick while forming a true resonance and depth. It’s something lacking entirely in Woody Harrelson desiring a Twinkie.
As with his role in this year’s earlier Your Highness, one begins to question the subversive, self-effacing nature of Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers and Fred Simmons. His villain, the unhinged, unchecked Dwayne makes liberal use of the other f-word as well as an uuuuugly Slumdog Millionaire joke as base, bottom-of-the-barrel gags rather than bathos. I’m not asking for the Lubitsch Touch here, but even Pineapple Express had a love of friendship and a fleshed-out world. The film’s jokes—always sounding scripted and self-satisfying—exist as in an elementary school diorama: if you throw hard and fast, something might stick.
And the rest of the film follows suit: women are largely absent in this universe and exist only to be objectified. There are seven credited female characters in the film, and the names of four of them are Juicy (a stripper), Hot Girl, Bikini Girl, and Major Tan Bikini Girl. Another is given enough screen time to finish up a blowjob. The beautiful Dilshad Vadsaria plays Kate, Jesse Eisenberg’s love interest and apparent leftover from a rejected Judd Apatow script where a successful, out-of-league woman can’t help but need the nerdy idler. Of course, as far as “love interest” goes, it mostly just means his character slept with her. Love has neither drive nor emotion, it is simply a device we’re told to swallow. Like Zombieland, the slacker aesthetic and passionless momentum is symptomatic of a larger issue: Eisenberg’s Nick tells his boss to fuck off and it’s a rally cry as if he were entitled to something better. It’s a universe in which Fleischer resides and 30 Minutes or Less lacks a love of film craft and a passion for life’s joys. It’s a derisive comedy with nothing at its core.
The film doesn’t lack laughs, just ones we rather choke on. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Ansari is strong despite how little the film gives them to work with. It’s a wonder we come out bigger Ansari fans: the buddy script is so nonsensically subservient, Ansari's Chet volunteers for bank robbery with nothing to gain and everything to lose. Racist to boot; it’s a film that takes deliberate care to paint Grand Rapids, Michigan and then brings in a Los Angeles Chicano (Michael Peña) as a dread-inducing thug (heaven help us, if Fleischer’s next project The Gangster Squad turns out to be anything like it sounds). At worst, the film is a half-hearted attempt at a smug writer’s first screenplay. No surprise Michael Diliberti hasn’t found his voice, underhandedly (if unintentionally) perpetuating white, male superiority. What’s disheartening is that, with two films under his belt, it appears Fleischer finds it funny. -- *½ / four stars