A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2011


2011, R, 83 mins.

Jesse Eisenberg: Nick / Aziz Ansari: Chet / Danny McBride: Dwayne / Nick Swardson: Travis / Michael Pena: Chango / Fred Ward: The Major / Bianca Kajlich: Juicy / Dilshad Vadsaria: Kate

Directed by Ruben Fleischer / Written by Michael Diliberti

30 MINUTES OR LESS has about 30 minutes of scenes that are solidly funny, about 30-40 minutes of scenes that are only sporadically so, and a remaining 10 that just sit listlessly on the screen and grind the film to a screeching halt.  

It yearns to be much like its bigger, rowdier, and more hilarious distant cousin, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, in terms of being a stoners and mobsters action comedy, but it ultimately comes off more as a lightweight poser than a fully realized example of the genre.  The film is certainly swiftly directed with sure-fire pacing, has a crop of fine comic performers, and it brings the funny on many an occasion, but 30 MINUTES OR LESS never seems to hit its stride through its already speedy 83 minute running time. 

Another disappointment is that the film was directed by Ruben Fleischer, whose debut effort was last year’s oftentimes gut-wrenchingly amusing ZOMBIELAND, which was a cheerfully unique and fresh homage/satire of the already browbeat zombie horror canon.  That film also worked well for the way Fleischer created a visual dynamism and sense of propulsive, almost comic book-y energy.  What’s disheartening, to a certain extent, is how much more laid back Fleischer is in 30 MINUTES OR LESS with framing his scenes, which mostly lack the same level of innovation and goofy sense of reckless abandon.  Aside from an opening title sequence – showing the main character speeding off on a pizza delivery run before his timer hits zero – and a high speed chase involving the protagonists and the cops later on, 30 MINUTES OR LESS lacks the visual ingenuity and heedless flair that Fleisher confidently evoked in his first film.   That, and 30 MINUTES OR LESS is just not as much spontaneous fun. 

What the film does have is sense of strong forward momentum that rarely looks back.  Nick (Jesse Eisenberg, re-teaming with Fleischer again) is a mid-twenty-something Michigan-based loser with no real career aspirations.  The pinnacle of his career goals is to delivery pizza and to deliver it with lightning speed.  He only appears to have one friend in the world in Chet (PARKS AND RECREATIONS’ Aziz Anzari, nimbly funny here) a substitute school teacher that thinks Nick needs to really address where his life is going.  Beyond that, they both have hit an awkward stage in their relationship when Nick reveals his very personal relationship with Chet's twin sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), in one of the film's hastily tacked on subplots. 

The film also tells another story of a bromance on the rocks.  There is a fairly imbecilic wanna-be criminal named Dwayne (Danny McBride) that is getting sick and tired of his ex-marine father (Fred Ward, wickedly playing a humorously vindictive and tough paternal figure) picking on him.  All he wants is for him to keel over and die so that he can get all of his millions (papa recently won the lottery and is living the high life).  So, Dwayne and his equally moronic partner, Travis (Adam Sandler film regular Nick Swardson) decides that they need to kill Dwayne’s dad (Dwayne gets the idea from a stripper giving him a lap dance).  One problem, though: they both need $100,000 to pay off a crazed Detroit area hitman named Changa (a hysterically intimidating loose cannon, played by a very game Michael Pena).   

Dwayne and Travis hatch a plan that seems almost too elaborate and well laid out for their pea-sized brains: they will kidnap a poor, hapless buffoon, attach a bomb to him, and make him rob a bank to secure the $100K.  If he doesn’t, the bomb will go off via a cell phone/remote ignition.  If he does not give over the stolen money... boom!  If he does not complete the task within a set period of time (cue the digital countdown clock on the bomb vest itself), ...boom!  If he tries to take the vest off…boom!  The only way he can save himself is to punch in the code to defuse the bomb, which will only be given over after completion of the task.  Dwayne and Travis discover Nick, kidnap him, and that’s when proverbial action film shit "gets real.” 

Aside from the film’s agile pacing, there are other elements here to admire: I really liked the stripped down setting of Grand Rapids, Michigan that is used as a low rental backdrop for this highly unusual heist.  The film also has a decent cast that knows how to both underplay and overplay scenes for just the right comic effect: Eisenberg's droll, self-deprecating delivery works well as a foil to the almost school girl-esque screeching of Anzari’s befuddled and frightened co-conspirator.  There are many hearty laughs to be had seeing just how far into the criminal rabbit hole that this Harold and Kumar-like pair will go, especially during the best sequence in the film when the generally timorous pair pathetically go full-on gangsta while robbing the bank (they also let their knowledge of 80’s action films help them along the way too).  There are also two very well delivered verbal gags involving THE HURT LOCKER and, yes, THE SOCIAL NETWORK.  Eisneberg’s Nick, at one point, nonchalantly informs Chet “I don’t check Facebook!”  Nice. 

Unfortunately, the film’s graces are pretty much subverted by its foibles.  Even though Eisenberg has very good chemistry with his co-star, I found it difficult to really buy into the fact that a shrewd and cagey actor like him is wholeheartedly believable playing an obtuse fool like Nick (the fact that he is constantly out-witted by the even dumber crooks in the film is also a head-scratcher).   As for the bumbling pair of small-time thieves and would-be high-stakes criminals themselves?  McBride and Swardson occupy far too many scenes that are meant to inspire large laughs, but instead barely register chuckles.  I have found Swardson borderline intolerable in many of his Sandler film cameos, but what I truly found lacking was McBride’s typically strapping comic instincts.   Perhaps I am growing tired of him far-too-frequently playing the same dim-witted, red necked, and potty-mouthed vulgarian/manchild in his films.   Maybe the film would have worked better if the crooks were smarter and craftier and played by Eisenberg and Anzari and McBride was the in-over-his-head dope that had a bomb placed over him?   

30 MINUTES OR LESS is also sometimes unsure of what kind of comic tone to take: should it be cynically and darkly funny or slap stick farcical?  This might have something to do with the fact that the underlining narrative bares a remarkable resemblance to a real life 2003 story of a Pennsylvanian man being forced to rob a bank while sporting a bomb attached to his neck by the real perpetrators (he eventually died when the bomb was triggered as the police swarmed on the bank in question).  Although the filmmakers here have somewhat pathetically sidestepped comparisons, citing that they were just vaguely familiar with this case (riiiiggghht), the real life tragedy kind of taints the fictional film.  For viewers not readily familiar with the particulars of the actual crime caper outside of the film’s, then you’ll probably emerge from 30 MINUTES OR LESS finding it to be periodically funny, zany in spirit, but too disjointed and ill-footed at times to be worthy of a concrete recommendation. 

  H O M E