Walking out of 30 Minutes or Less is kind of like exiting a raging suburban house party. The setting was familiar and comfortable and your fellow revelers were decent enough company, but as you sober up you realize you spent most of the night listening to townies alternate between berating each other and slurring their shoddy plans to get the hell out of Dodge. And you suddenly wonder: Why do I hang out with those assholes?
Our first 30 Minutes or Less introduction comes in the form of disgruntled pizza-delivery boy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who isn’t afraid to scam anyone brazen enough to make good on his employer’s “30 minutes or it’s free” motto. He pines for the affections of a girl who greets him by saying he looks very “minimum wage,” announces no long-term aspirations aside from stopping the aforementioned girl from accepting a respectable job in a faraway city, and hangs around a guy who pummels him with insults.
The latter is Chet (Aziz Ansari , whose comedic talents are criminally underused to the point that he’s reduced to something of a screeching narrator), a teacher who merrily humiliates his unruly students and calls Nick a loser at every opportunity. We’re given a hint that these two have been BFFs a long time (one wonders why) courtesy of an argument that unearths previously unmentioned secrets. Its subject matter is so silly; its delivery so swift and sarcastic, that it actually takes a moment to realize a rift has formed.
Conversely, we’re given Dwayne (Danny McBride), the unemployed son of a lottery-winning ex-Marine (the delightfully stern, predictably butt-kicking Fred Ward) who reigns over Dwayne with harsh words, menial chores and a lack of faith in his ability to prosper. And Dwayne doesn’t do much to disprove the accusations: He lazes about his father’s mansion with his friend Travis (Nick Swardson) and frequents the local strip club. Dwayne decides he needs to bump off his dad as part of scheme to use his inheritance for a twisted start-up venture (respectably earning money is something to be scoffed at, apparently; see: Nick). However, hitman Chango (Michael Peña) charges $100,000, so Dwayne and Travis eventually call in a phony pizza order, kidnap Nick, strap explosives to him and force him to rob a bank.
As the plot unfolds, it becomes almost impossible to sift through the haze of harsh words, disingenuous actions and double-crosses to understand why on earth either of these duos sticks by, or fight for, one another. Nick and Chet make up long enough to team together for the heist (Chet’s reasoning for doing so is flimsy, at best), and Dwayne’s increasingly hotheaded and authoritarian take on the mounting chaos completely undermines the fact that Travis truly holds the power (we get a glimpse of this fact in one pivotal scene, which lays the groundwork for a redemptive character arc, but never delivers). You’re granted an all-access pass to their crisscrossing weird little worlds, and, frankly, it’s a depressing ride.
All of these actions have consequences, of course. Unfortunately, the line is blurred regarding exactly who should receive justice. It’s hard to build tension, or make it pay off, when the guy wearing a bomb, the dude on the other end of a loaded gun and the person with an itchy trigger finger are essentially morally indistinguishable. That’s because the film’s players are broken down to walking, talking obscene jokes, gestures and motivations to a point where they’re on a level playing field – all of their actions are justified, however deplorable. Sure, going against the grain of traditional storytelling rules is commendable, and there are plenty of deftly-delivered laughs to be had. But when there isn’t at least one person for the audience to sympathetically ground itself to, the narrative proves difficult to digest.
Plot-wise, the ripple effect of Dwayne and Travis’ initial scheme is inspired and the action sequences are fun, which makes the fact that these elements are bestowed upon a hollow set of players all the more frustrating. Normally I groan about films being 20 minutes too long, but the opposite is true of 30 Minutes or Less. The story ends so abruptly that it feels unfinished, its pacing seemingly clocked on a timer like the one on Nick’s dashboard. Presumably, this is because of the apathy generated by a lack of any distinguishable protagonist – but it most definitely leaves one longing (and if you wait around during the credits, you’ll be privy to something that will add confusion to the myriad emotions).
This film wanders far from director Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland territory – closer to the tone and humor of Eastbound and Down writer/director Jody Hill’s Observe and Report. But, while Observe and Report serves up some seriously demented characters, its premise is easier to swallow because you can relate to Ronnie’s drive to succeed. 30 Minutes or Less gives us a tight plot and some well-conceived twists, but its players are as coreless as the spray-painted plastic guns Nick and Chet wave at a group of bank tellers.
Writers Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan would do well to take a lesson from Attack the Block, which similarly showcases seemingly unsympathetic characters catapulted into a situation beyond their control. Block builds to infuse heart and growth into its rowdy crew, but 30 Minutes or Less never strays beyond the superficial. Perhaps the fact that the movie plays like an extended episode of Eastbound and Down makes sense; it’s more conceivable that the product would deliver in doses of 30 minutes or less.
30 Minutes or Less opens today nationwide.