Even among the rather specialized genre of stoner comedies, 30 Minutes or Less isn’t exactly the cream of the crop. And arguably, after the movie’s opening scene, it adopts a more slacker than stoner vibe. But the problems with the film, which are myriad, are mostly masked by an eclectic and naturally funny cast that punches above the script’s weight class. Ultimately, 30 Minutes or Less is a theatrical release more suited for viewing at home with a favorite beverage close at hand.
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a loser 20-something who’d rather aimlessly deliver pizzas than get a career that requires a greater level of responsibility. His roommate and best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), takes a job as a high school teacher, leaving behind all manner of youthful indiscretion like late-night drunken binges and risky behavior. This shift puts a strain on the buddies’ friendship. But when Nick gets kidnapped and wired with a bomb vest, Chet rises to the occasion, coming to his friend’s aid. Together the two must rob a bank in order to save Nick’s life. And as we all know, there’s nothing like a bomb and a good bank robbery to bring friends together.
After scoring big with 2009’s excellent Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer follows up that high-concept success with this well-cast but unimaginative comedy that will likely only find an audience possessing short attention spans. The laughs are scattershot, with minor giggles throughout. Getting by on its goofy charisma, 30 Minutes or Less works adequately for the dumb comedy it is, but will be quickly forgotten.
The cast of standouts is led by Jesse Eisenberg. Last year, in The Social Network, Eisenberg moved from quirky anti-leading man to still quirky but unique actor with leading-man potential. Here he handles Nick well, although the material is hardly a challenge. Eisenberg does manage to inject some convincing emotion into certain key scenes, especially those with the lovely Dilshad Vadsaria, who plays the love interest in the film.
As Eisenberg’s wingman, Ansari gets a great opportunity to show off his comedic talents and does so with mixed results. It’s the script that fails him. The duo of Nick and Chet are a bit like two straight men, with the jokes flowing between them largely of one note. They often amuse each other with fast-paced and cryptic dialogue that’s funny more due to the delivery than the content. And the jokes seem a bit too inside—a cheat sheet would help fill in the details. They banter mostly about their bromance and Nick’s clandestine relationship with Chet’s twin sister. It gets flat fast and the loser is Ansari, who becomes annoying by the film’s halfway point.
Even more one-dimensional is Danny McBride, who plays Dwayne, another dim-witted ignoramus, who masterminds a foolish plan to kill his rich father (played well by Fred Ward). Coming off much better is his partner in crime Travis (Nick Swardson), who might be the best-written character in the film. McBride, who’s made a career out of talking about his genitals and creating clueless and funny characters, shows little range. He’s getting too old for this kind of role and should move on to another persona, because this one is beginning to wear out its welcome.
The game-changer in the movie is Michael Peña, who plays a gang-banger hired to kill Dwayne’s father. Peña plays his tweaked criminal somewhere between parody and scary reality. In a better script, this would have been Peña’s Something Wild, the Jonathan Demme movie that introduced the world to Ray Liotta’s dark side. Here Peña makes a marginal film a little more interesting, and his face-off with Fred “Remo Williams” Ward is almost worth the price of admission.
30 Minutes or Less is really aimed at a specific audience courted well with movies like Pineapple Express and Observe and Report. The visual look of those films is replicated here, and the same bong-humor tone is repeated, although in an uneven fashion. Since the focus isn’t on weed, the film relies on the bank robbery for story. There’s been controversy surrounding the storyline’s connection to real-world events. Director Fleischer and writers Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan have denied any direct connection between the film and the 2003 tragedy involving pizza delivery driver Brian Wells, who died from injuries sustained when a bomb collar he was forced to wear exploded. That terrible event involved a bank robbery as well as a plot to kill someone’s rich father. Given the obvious similarities, Wells’ family is outraged by the movie that is seen as satirizing the sad events for laughs.
While this notoriety might make for a good headline and provide a small film with some free publicity, Eisenberg’s portrayal of an allegedly Wells-like character could be characterized as “flattering” and supports the Wells’ family’s version of the story. The government investigation into the 2003 bank robbery maintained that Wells was a co-conspirator although he may not have known that the bomb he was wearing was real. His family disputes that finding. Perhaps as a saving grace, 30 Minutes or Less takes those events in an even more outlandish direction. No one could seriously confuse this comedy with the tragedy that took place in the real world. And if the movie is in bad taste, that certainly comes with the territory.