Silver Screen: Thirty Minutes or Less ***1/2
Comedy rarely benefits from a big budget. There are exceptions-- Ghostbusters, say, or more recently Tropic Thunder-- but generally comedy is more intimate and laughs are generated by smaller-scale moments, a dialogue exchange or a facial expression. The essence of standup comedy, for instance, is minimalism; go watch the biggest live comedy show of the moment, Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K., and the setup is still just a man and a microphone. Anything else just impedes the exchange.
Director Ruben Fleischer's debut, Zombieland, was one of those exceptions, an expensive-ish sendup of horror flicks with some action tropes tossed in. Here the effects and the scope of the silliness didn't dwarf the jokes but rather accentuated them to wonderful effect. Fleischer's followup, the dark crime comedy Thirty Minutes or Less, is a bit more modest than Zombieland, but again Fleischer, with assistance from screenwriters Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan, employs some bigger stunts and special effects, although this time around they feel more like a distraction. Fleischer's sophomore film is funny, but it succeeds on the strength of its cast and the quieter moments, proving once again that funny and cheap go together like a Kardashian and a camera.
The film is based on the strange, grim true story of a Pennsylvania man who robbed a bank but claimed he was being forced to commit the heist by the real criminals, who attached a bomb to a collar and put it around his neck. The bomb would eventually go off, killing him, and police later suspected but never proved that the victim of the bomb may actually have been in on the caper-gone-wrong.
In Fleischer's version, a kind of Elmore Leonard riff for the Judd Apatow set, the bomb isn't in a collar but a vest, and the man it's attached to, pizza-delivery guy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), is guilty of a lot of things, but not robbery. He's a caustic stoner wasting his life and resenting everyone else who isn't, including his schoolteacher best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari). He even slept with Chet's beautiful twin sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), for whom he still carries a torch, the revelation of which nearly drives the two apart. But when Nick gets unwillingly fitted with the bomb vest and forced to rob the bank, nice-guy Chet reluctantly agrees to help him go through with the robbery.
The not-exactly masterminds behind this scheme are delusional loser Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his tagalong buddy Travis (Nick Swardson), who plan to use the $100,000 Nick steals to hire a hitman to bump off Dwayne's lottery-winner dad (Fred Ward) for his inheritance. It's a convoluted plan, even by the standards of two dimwit villains in a comedy, and the movie constantly has to fill in the gaps in logic to make this work.
But the essence of the movie is about friendship, either between the two semi-sociopathic losers or the two slightly more upstanding ones. It works, too, largely thanks to some terrific performances. McBride, of course, rehashes the same character he's played since his debuts in All the Real Girls and The Foot Fist Way, amusing but growing stale in repetition. And Eisenberg, though deft with comedy, has too much latent intelligence to credibly pull off the dimwit stoner slacker schtick.
No, Thirty Minutes or Less is all about the second bananas. Ansari is hysterical as the neurotic, type-A Chet, whose panic over the situation gradually gives way to excitement over his accidental involvement in a criminal enterprise. And Swardson, a very funny guy who too rarely gets strong material with which to work, is exceptional as the mostly likable Travis, who doesn't want to see anyone get hurt but is too passive to stand up to Dwayne. Swardson, in a frumpy moustache and sporting a bemused, furrowed brow, does more subtle work here than ever before, and it works wonderfully.
It's a frivolous film, sure, something even Fleischer seems to acknowledge with the spare eighty-three-minute running time (even the film nearly clocks in at thirty minutes or less), but it's lean and doesn't get cluttered with unnecessary subplots or dramatic twists. It's a joke-delivery machine, and so long as the jokes are coming from Ansari and Swardson, it's a fine piece of equipment.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.