30 Minutes or Less (United States, 2011)

August 12, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
30 Minutes or Less Poster

It would be possible to form a tragedy from the background inspiration of Ruben Fleisher's 30 Minutes or Less, but the filmmakers have not traveled that route. Instead of fashioning a heartbreaking tale about greed and inhumanity, Fleisher has applied the same fast, scattershot approach to this movie that he employed to good effect for his breakthrough effort, Zombieland. The dark, biting comedy often strays into territory that can be categorized as politically incorrect, but the result is funny, engaging, and at times a little disconcerting. The action in and of itself isn't groundbreaking but the comedic elements keep things like a routine car chase from becoming lackluster. 30 Minutes or Less' release date indicates it's not expected to be one of the summer's big guns but it is in some ways more satisfying than a majority of the releases bearing such a label.

Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a post-college age pizza delivery boy who lives in an ambition free zone. His best (only?) friend is Chet (Aziz Ansari), a teacher who believes he has reached his career pinnacle. These two buddies are going through a rough patch at the moment - due in large part to Nick's confession that he once had sex with Chet's twin sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) - but Chet is the one Nick turns to when he's in trouble. And it's big trouble. Two inept thugs, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardon), need $100 thousand to pay off a hit man (Michael Pena) to kill Dwayne's Type A Ex-Marine Father (Fred Ward). To get that money, they concoct a scheme whereby they will kidnap some unsuspecting schlub, dress him in a bomb vest, and instruct him to rob a bank or risk going "boom!" Then they order a pizza...

Tone is critical to a movie of this nature, and Fleischer gets it right. There are occasional moments of drama and instances when the action elements are elevated but, for the most part, this is a comedy and is recognized as such. With the main characters being slackers, it is unsurprising that much of the humor is in that vein, but there are also some more mainstream gags as well. Compared to many of the year's ruder, cruder offerings, 30 Minutes or Less comes across as almost gentle; its sex jokes are sophomoric but not grotesque and there's not a lot of envelope-pushing going on here.

As Nick, Eisenberg is credible, which is a credit to the actor, who has shown a knack for playing both an ambitious genius and an ambitionless doofus. Nick doesn't come across as a complete moron, but the measure of the man may be that he is easily outmaneuvered by two idiots, so that doesn't say much for his intelligence. It's easy to lose patience with protagonists who are not blessed with an abundance of smarts, but Eisenberg is so likeable and appealing in a slacker/stoner way that most viewers will still find themselves rooting for Nick.

Danny McBride and Nick Swardon are effective villains for this kind of movie. They're more oafish than frightening and, while that might be a poor characteristic in a serious action movie, it's a strong plus for something like 30 Minutes or Less. McBride is more in his element here than he was in Your Highness; his personality is better suited to slightly warped, hard-to-take-seriously bad guys than slightly warped hard-to-take-seriously heroic types. His presence calls to mind Pineapple Express, with which 30 Minutes or Less shares some slacker sensibilities. Fred Ward and Michael Pena don't have a lot to do. Ward's turn as the Major has the right over-the-top vibe; Pena is a little on the intense side.

30 Minutes or Less isn't as fresh as Zombieland, and it doesn't feel as original. But as a second feature, it more-or-less does what's expected of it. The weakest ingredient in the brew is the "buddy" element, which is tepid at best, due in large part to the lack of tangible chemistry between Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari. These two are no Harold and Kumar. Fortunately, however, the movie doesn't try to oversell this aspect. In fact, with its short, sweet 83-minute running time, it never threatens to overstay its welcome, and flaws that could become glaring problems (underdeveloped characters, a tacked-on romance) are less obvious and more forgivable given the brevity of the material. Most important of all, 30 Minutes or Less never runs out of comedic steam.

30 Minutes or Less (United States, 2011)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Fred Ward
Screenplay: Michael Diliberti
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:23
U.S. Release Date: 2011-08-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1