Some weeks back, movie-house managers reported that a significant percentage of customers seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life had stormed out of the theaters early and demanded their money back. Malick’s offense was to include, early in the film, a 17-minute segment encapsulating the history of the cosmos in glorious, often abstract imagery; it baffled and thus angered many moviegoers. Yet if the Malick movie had contained explicit violence or gross sexuality or obscene language or a Neanderthal view of women, few patrons would have dared ask for a refund.
Mind you, most of those elements can be found in a slew of action films and bromances, including some good ones. But when they are applied with a ponderous lack of purpose on both sides of the camera, the result is 30:Minutes or Less (that’s how the title appears on screen), a low-aiming, lower-achieving heist comedy that plays like those filler farces that run on Comedy Central between reruns of The Daily Show and Tosh 2.0 — except you can’t fast-forward or change the channel. For a soul-sucking 83 minutes, you’re trapped inside the film’s tiny, ugly mind.
If you detect the same note of betrayal that the Tree-haters felt, it’s because 30:Minutes‘s star, Jesse Eisenberg, and its director, Ruben Fleischer, previously collaborated on Zombieland, a smart, funny genre comedy about a quartet of humans in an America overrun (or over-slow-walked) by the undead. Zombieland fans, like me, were hoping that Fleischer and Eisenberg would bring the same cool brio to the buddy-caper genre. But no. The film has the feel of a frat-house improv attempted by guys who’ve done too much weed. Early in the game, you will try to get on 30:Minutes‘s coarse, lazy vibe and hope for something artless and insinuating — the “Louie Louie” of movies. Even there you will meet disappointment. No matter how low you go, the picture keeps tunneling deeper in a feat of cinematic onedownsmanship.
Say this for the plot devised by first-time screenwriters Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan: there’s plenty of it. Nick (Eisenberg), an aimless 20something in Grand Rapids, Mich., has two occupations: driving a delivery van for Vito’s Pizza and hanging with his OFF — only friend forever — Chet (Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation). It is the script’s lone innovation to take a familiar pair of birdbrained buddies and double the dose. Across town live two other slackers… losers… lackers… named Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). They’ve hatched a scheme to murder Dwayne’s semi-rich dad (Fred Ward) and open a combination tanning salon and hooker emporium. To get the $100,000 needed to hire an assassin, they kidnap Nick, outfit him in a C4 vest and instruct him to rob a bank and get the loot back to them in 10 hours or less — or else he’s puréed pizza boy.
The only entertainment value to be mined from this Grand Rapids mishigas is a bunch of not-bad inside-movie jokes — as when the actor who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network disses Facebook by saying, “You know I don’t check that shit out.” Later, flailing in his attempts to defuse the C4 belt, Nick wonders, “What did they do in The Hurt Locker?”, and Chet replies, “I don’t know, I didn’t see it.” (The joke: neither did anyone else.) So the lads imitate the bank heist from a Kathryn Bigelow movie they did see: Point Break.
Clogged as it with film references, 30:Minutes was likely inspired by a real tragedy. In 2003 a pizza delivery driver named Brian Wells died when a collar bomb he was wearing exploded during a bank heist in Eric, Pa. Wells’ family doesn’t think that filching the particulars of his death for a bromance farce is so very funny. And just last week, the 18-year-old daughter of a Sydney, Australia, software zillionaire spent 10 harrowing hours chained in a vest she thought was studded with explosives before bomb-squad specialists freed her. (The vest turned out to be a sophisticated hoax, and the police could not immediately locate the perp.)
I’m not saying that movie people can’t rip a story from yesterday’s headlines, or for that matter rip it off in a quest for laughs. But they’d better be the kind of laughs that choke in your throat — dark comedy with a bilious tinge. That’s what Joel and Ethan Coen were after in Fargo. The Brit iconoclast Chris Morris showed greater nerve last year with Four Lions, a comedy about a team of crackpot jihadists from Manchester. 30:Minutes, though, doesn’t aspire to satire’s grand misanthropy; it simply straps the bomb plot to buddy-movie feel-bad fun — sort of Zuck & Kumar Go to Pieces, or Dwayne & Travis’s Crapulous Misadventure. Even as a crime caper, the movie misses the bold blend of behavioral comedy and explosive violence in George Armitage’s 1990 Miami Blues, starring Ward as a detective and the young Alec Baldwin as a charming sociopath.
I might urge TIME.com readers to go a multiplex this weekend, sit through the movie for 30 minutes or less, then leave en masse and demand a refund — except that life is too short for such political theater. Anyhow, the most frustrating aspect of this film is that its only amusing sequence comes in the very last minute, after the closing credits, with a mock commercial for Dwayne’s tanning salon. That scene has the comic verve and performance élan missing from every earlier frame of 30:Minutes of Less. But I’d still rather watch the cosmic pyrotechnics and CGI dinosaurs of The Tree of Life. For that I’d pay double.