The “R” rating stands for maximum raunch in the case of “The To Do List,” an exuberantly vulgar tale of a high-school valedictorian’s efforts to earn a 1600 on the SATs of intercourse. Featuring a few gags that might make even Judd Apatow blush, this rare femme-centric addition to the loss-of-virginity canon (dominated by the likes of “Porky’s,” “Risky Business” and “American Pie”) hits its fair share of outrageously funny highs amid lots of so-so filler, but stays buoyant and likable throughout thanks to the winning presence of “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza in the lead. Arriving at the height of palpable blockbuster fatigue, tyro scribe-helmer Maggie Carey’s low-budget laffer should earn passing marks from auds and score solid sleeper biz for CBS Films.
Set in the heavily nostalgized, pre-Internet year of 1993 — which, among other cultural signposts, allows for a soundtrack that might be dubbed “Best of Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” — the pic springs into motion with studious good girl Brandy (Plaza) discovering that, while she’s been burying herself in schoolwork, most of her classmates have been busy studying how to zooma-zoom-zoom in the proverbial boom-boom. So with the same overachieving resolve she brings to her AP chemistry labs, plus some handy pointers from BFFs Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), she sets out on a crash course in masturbation, dry humping and oral pleasure, en route to the much-coveted cherry pop. (Pic’s title refers to the carefully indexed checklist Brandy keeps tucked away in — where else? — her Trapper Keeper.)
Further helping to set the stage for this Olympiad of heavy petting is Brandy’s summer job as lifeguard at a community pool (managed by burnout Bill Hader, Carey’s real-life husband), which puts her in flirtatious proximity to dorky, smitten nice guy Cameron (Johnny Simmons) and a buff, bronzed, guitar-strumming dude named Rusty Waters (played with maximum self-mocking vanity by the deft Scott Porter). Both become somewhat unwitting human check marks on Brandy’s list — a sly reversal of the usual gender roles in movies like this, or for that matter Hollywood movies in general.
Indeed, while “The To Do List” isn’t the first movie about a teen girl determined to become a woman, most of the prior examples that spring to mind (Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Stealing Beauty” and the 1980 French hit “La Boum” among them) were more serious in tone and (unsurprisingly) made by European directors. Carey, a veteran of sitcoms and sketch comedy, brings a refreshing laissez-faire attitude toward her ostensibly taboo subject matter, which in turn manages something very few teen sex comedies of any stripe have done: It demystifies the sex act to the point that Brandy’s goal seems ever less momentous the closer she gets to fulfilling it. Or, to quote the movie’s own rather enlightened conclusion, “Sex is a big deal but not always a big deal.”
All of which makes “The To Do List” just promising enough for you to wish it were even better. Though Carey tries to invest the outre merriment with some legitimate emotional stakes, the movie never really connects on that level in the way of the similar-themed “Superbad” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” or the best Farrelly brothers romps, because none of the secondary characters have been endowed with distinctive personalities of their own. So whether it’s Cameron’s wounded pride when he feels he’s been used, or Brandy’s ill-judged hook-up with the apple of Wendy’s eye (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), betrayal here never seems more than skin-deep.
Nothing, though, can diminish Plaza’s ebullient, game-faced turn. Looking like the girl most likely to become a kinky school librarian, she hurls herself through the movie’s gauntlet of humiliating physical comedy with stumblebum aplomb, whether trying to save face after an awkward bathing-suit malfunction or (in the pic’s gross-out piece de resistance) sporting a quite literal shit-eating grin. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg also share a few choice moments as Brandy’s parents, the former sympathetic to her daughter’s growing pains, the later naively clinging to the idea that his own wife was still a virgin on their wedding night.
On a technical level, the pic is as crudely made as some of its jokes, perhaps unintentionally calling to mind another early ’90s pop-culture reference: ABC’s hit Friday night lineup of family sitcoms.