It’s tempting to say that the funniest moment of 30 Minutes Or Less comes during its credits. I’m not talking about bloopers or outtakes, though: I’m actually referring to the brazen inclusion of a “any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental” notice, considering that the film, which is about a pizza delivery driver who has a bomb strapped to his chest and is forced to rob a bank, has a plot that's borrowed wholesale from the story of Brian Douglas Wells...a real-life pizza delivery driver who had a bomb collar attached to his neck and was forced to rob a bank. Again, it’s tempting to say that the inclusion of that disclaimer is the funniest part of the movie, but it’s not entirely true; the film does manage some laughs, but far, far fewer than you might think given the talent on display. Unless, perhaps, you think people yelling at each other is automatically funny.
If you do, then you’re in for a treat, because first-time screenwriter Michael Dilberti sure seems to assume that volume and swearing is an appropriate humor delivery system in the absence of, say, jokes. No one converses in this film if the alternative is to scream at each other at very close range, and since we’re given two pairs of high-strung friends to follow along, a whole mess of loud noises sustains the film’s volume level from near the beginning until the end. There are humorous lines here and there, and the situations that the characters find themselves in can be amusing in a madcap kind of way, but this is still a film that suffers from a sense of construction, of deliberate artifice behind its creation. A bit more looseness and a tad more sincere back-and-forth between the characters, instead of having them merely recite lines, would’ve done the film well.
One such pair of friends, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) and Chet (Aziz Ansari) are the dupes here; Nick’s got a dead-end job and is about to see the love of his life move to Atlanta, but shortly thereafter sees his life flipped around when that pesky little bomb-vest gets attached to his abdomen and he’s told that he has ten hours to retrieve $100,000 from a local bank. Not knowing precisely what to do in such a situation, he calls upon his best friend, Chet, to help figure out how to either get the bomb off (Chet’s idea being to take him to the hospital, have his arms removed, and slide the vest off before reattaching his limbs) or, failing that, to pull off the bank robbery and not get caught.
Compare and contrast with Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), who cook up the scheme to get a patsy to rob a bank for them to raise that hundred grand to pay for an assassin to kill Dwayne’s father (Fred Ward, who's great as ever) and earn his inheritance a few years before he might otherwise do so. Dwayne is about as perfect a role for McBride as you might imagine, with that characteristic mixture of braggadocio, stupidity, and filthy-mindedness that we’ve come to expect from the bulk of his characters. Swardson acts as the simple-minded sidekick who uses the “that’s what she said” line in situations where it doesn’t make sense. (And having a character literally unaware of how to be funny is ironic here, considering 30 Minutes' problems in that regard.)
There’s a lot of talent on display here, with Ansari and McBride bringing ferocious improv chops to their television roles on Parks & Recreation and Eastbound And Down, Swardson being an accomplished standup from a young age, and Eisenberg pulling off precisely this kind of nebbishy, frustrated humor in many of his previous roles. It’s difficult to comprehend, then, precisely why the film falls so flat so consistently, but it would appear that director Ruben Fleischer (who worked with Eisenberg previously on the superlative Zombieland) and his cast chose a slavish devotion to the script rather than risking any attempts at ad libbing. The lines feel too constructed to be conversational, and that prevents the audience from getting any real sense of a relationship between the two pairs. Ansari and Eisenberg’s characters are old friends because we’re told they are, not because the pair are allowed to explore any kind of chemistry that might well up from their dialogue
Dilberti attempts to gain a lot of mileage with Beavis And Butthead-grade scatological jokes from a perpetually sex-focused McBride, but none of it’s very shocking or amusing, unless you’re the sort who giggles at the notion of calling fellatio “polishing the scepter” or someone announcing in the middle of a meal that “I gotta take a shit!” Yeah, it’s like that. Ansari and Eisenberg get some slightly better material, with Ansari especially coming off well when he gets a chance to let loose, but again, they mostly talk about the fact that Nick fucked Chet’s sister on their high school graduation night. This is a film that constantly seems on the verge of mirth, but refrains from venturing towards the more difficult ground on the border of outright hilarity.
What’s perhaps more peculiar is the film’s R-rating; I hate to assume anything, but this is a movie that feels like the studio saw the success of The Hangover and decided to throw in a few bare breasts to make their offering seem a bit more edgy. There are a few curse words here and there, but nothing that really pushes any boundaries; it’s difficult to see, absent a short stripclub sequence, why any of the material on hand warrants an R. Dwayne’s character does talk about sex acts a lot, sure, but usually under the guise of the ridiculous euphemisms mentioned above; it’s crass, but not in a way that seems to be especially bold or notable. If you’re expecting some kind of hilariously outré comedy exclusively for adults, you’ll probably be better off checking out one of the other six R-rated comedies that have appeared in the last few months.
You’ll get a laugh here and there from 30 Minutes Or Less; it’s by no means a complete failure. It is, however, a film that thinks it’s funnier than it actually is, and while some of its deficiencies in the humor department might have been salvaged by a more robust conclusion or some rousing action sequences, neither of those options are really on the table, either. Fleischer and Dilberti aren’t the first to try and take a real-world tragedy (Wells eventually died during a police standoff when his neck-bomb exploded) and turn it into a filmed comedy, but they also don’t appear to be the most competent at such a strategy. With any other group of actors, this is a film that might have turned into a decent 90 minutes of bored Netflix Instant Streaming, but the actual product is all the more disappointing considering the high level of quality we’ve come to expect from the director and cast.