I’ve heard it said that comedies are some of the hardest movies to review. Part of the reason why is because no two people have the exact same sense of humor. Some people prefer sexual humor, some laugh at poop jokes, some people don’t find Woody Allen funny, and I won’t even get started on the different kinds of socio-political satire. The most surefire way to describe the strength and flavor of a movie’s humor is to share a few jokes in the review, but that’s also the most surefire way to prematurely spoil the movie a critic is encouraging his/her audience to see.
Personally, I attempt to get around this problem by deconstructing a movie’s comedy. I like to try and break a movie’s humor down and determine precisely why it’s funny. I find it to be a very useful technique for analyzing the strength of a film’s characterization and plotting. It also gives you — my dear and gracious readers — a description of the movie’s sense of humor and intelligence, so that you may decide if the movie’s approach is one that you might laugh at.
Let’s take 30 Minutes or Less, for example.
Here, we have a movie with a very simple premise: A pizza delivery guy — Nick, played by Jesse Eisenberg — who is kidnapped, gets a time bomb strapped to his chest, and is forced into robbing a bank before the bomb goes off. It’s a premise that could easily be done as a crime thriller. In fact, if we’re being honest, it could easily have been done a million times as a crime thriller. So, this movie tries to make the conceit fresh by using it for an R-rated comedy. How could such a feat be done?
First, we deal with a basic fact: Proficient criminals are not funny. When a group of criminals are organizing a heist and they all clearly know what they’re doing, that’s drama or perhaps suspense, not comedy. When the movie follows a character who can steal, murder, rape and/or injure people in cold blood and then get away with it without breaking a sweat, that’s not funny — that’s scary. So naturally, the criminal in our crime comedy can’t have a clue what he’s doing. Luckily, the premise comes with a protagonist — our pizza delivery guy — who doesn’t know a thing about robbing banks aside from what he’s seen in action movies.
However, Nick by himself is just a guy who’s desperate to do whatever he has to in order to survive. That’s never a humorous situation, and yet Nick is in such a position from start to finish. To distract from that, Nick is given a “best friend” character — Chet, played by Aziz Ansari — who accompanies our protagonist through the entire film. Thus, we have someone who can provide humor by commenting on and reacting to the proceedings in a heightened way. Additionally, the character gives Nick someone to play off of, which allows for comical interplay (insults, compliments, which task goes to whom, etc.).
Unfortunately, Nick and Chet can’t just talk about the plot. It would get boring and repetitive if the bomb and the bank heist were all they talked about, and any decently-developed characters would have lives and histories outside the narrative. So, let’s give them a girl to fight over: Kate, played by newcomer Dilshad Vadsaria. In fact, let’s make the girl Chet’s sister — better yet, his twin sister — so the feud is that much more personal. And as a bonus, our protagonist gets a love interest in the bargain.
But what about the other side of the equation? What about our villains, who put the bomb vest on our pizza delivery guy to begin with? Well, they’d naturally need a lot of screen time, and for the reasons previously stated, any time we spend with them wouldn’t be funny if they were actually decent criminals. So instead, we’ve got Dwayne (Danny McBride), a horny idiot who wants to get rich quick with the least possible amount of effort. Of course, the character won’t be nearly as funny if his delusions of grandeur stay in his head, so he’s going to need a sounding board. Toward that end, he’s got Travis (Nick Swardson), his pyromaniac best friend, who is of course an even bigger doofus than Dwayne.
Now, these characters need a motivation. They need a reason for going through all this trouble, preferably one that’s as heightened and blatantly stupid as possible. So, Dwayne gets the idea of setting up a tanning salon that fronts as a prostitution ring. It’s a literal pipe dream that shows the extent of Dwayne’s entrepreneurial ambitions, and we know full well — even though he doesn’t — that he could never actually make it work in a million years. And there’s an excuse for sex humor thrown into the bargain. Brilliant.
This right here would be plenty. We’ve got characters, we’ve got conflict, we’ve got motivations, and we’ve got plenty of excuses for slacker humor, sex jokes and screwball comedy. Unfortunately, the movie decided to take one step more than it needed to, making the plot unnecessarily convoluted.
See, one of the most effective vehicles for comedy is contrast. Show something ridiculous next to something totally serious, and the ridiculous thing looks that much funnier by comparison. In this case, that means bringing a bona fide felon into the mix to act against our crew of wannabes. To make him even more dangerous, let’s say he’s a hitman (Michael Pena). The only problem is that now, the professional hitman needs a reason to be mixed up in all of this.
So — get this — Dwayne is arranging the bank robbery to pay for the hitman. Why? Well, Dwayne’s father (Fred Ward) is a former Marine who’s understandably tough on his freeloading disappointment of a son. What’s more, The Major recently been buying up all manner of expensive houses, giant TVs, fancy cars, etc., with ten million dollars that he recently won in the lottery. Dwayne hopes to kill his dad, inheriting all the swag and the $1.2 million still unspent.
Put simply: Dwayne wants to steal $100,000 so he can spend it and get $1.2 million. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more profitable to just take a few million from the bank and cut out the middleman? Also, Dwayne’s daddy issues don’t factor into the proceedings at all in any meaningful way once the ball gets rolling, so this whole subplot was entirely pointless.
Aside from that poorly handled misstep, the movie is actually made quite well. The vast majority of this movie’s humor comes from funny conversations and reactions, so it’s a blessing that these actors all play wonderfully off each other with perfect comedic timing. Having said that, Eisenberg, McBride and Swardson are all playing roles they could do in their sleep at this point. The gold star goes to Ansari, who utilizes manic energy and a rapier wit to steal just about every scene in the movie.
The film’s humor is never so explicit or lowbrow that it will shock or offend anyone, but it isn’t so intelligent that the audience will be struggling to keep up with the brisk pace and 83-minute runtime. Most of it has to do with characters who are out of their depth as they pretend to be something they’re not, which conveys humor, develops the characters and advances the plot all at once.
Additionally, this is in part an action film that pays homage by referencing other action movies. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Point Break all get mentions, but my personal favorite joke went to The Hurt Locker. What makes that particular reference great is that the characters haven’t actually seen Hurt Locker, but those audience members who have will find the joke darkly humorous. It’s an inside joke that even the characters aren’t in on. Genius.
Last but not least, I’ve got to mention the car chases. The car chases and stunts in this scene are brilliant, and many of them benefit from the unique visual touch of Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer.
When all is said and done, 30 Minutes or Less is a damn funny movie because it has humorous characters acting like twits over life-and-death stakes. The actors are all gifted comics — even if they do look tired at times — which is really what makes the movie work. Even if the narrative does have a few subplots too many, the humor is smart, the action is good, and the pacing is outstanding. It’s a brief and humorous movie that’s a lot of fun. Definitely worth a look.