30 Minutes or Less (Columbia Pictures), the second feature from director Ruben Fleischer, counts as one of the great disappointments of my cinematic year so far. Not because it’s such a terrible movie—like most summer comedies, it has scattershot moments of mirth—but because I had such high hopes. Fleischer’s first film, Zombieland (2009), was the kind of debut that gets you excited about a filmmaker’s future: a dystopic road movie that struck just the right balance between dark social satire and wistful romance, and starred Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Bill Murray, all seeming to enjoy themselves hugely. If Zombieland was a freshman effort that felt surprisingly accomplished, 30 Minutes or Less is a second movie that feels more like a first: slipshod, derivative, and unsure what tone to take toward its own sometimes distasteful subject matter.
Still, there’s enough to like about 30 Minutes or Less that I want to sit Fleischer down as a kindly aunt might pigeonhole her wayward nephew and lecture him on what he could have done differently. Structurally, 30 Minutes makes the mistake of wanting to combine Tarantino-style comic violence with soft-hearted moments of brotherly bonding. The two villains—a pair of dumb-and-dumber redneck hooligans played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson—get established early on as selfish, amoral jerks, so when we’re asked later in the movie to invest emotionally in their friendship, it’s simply confusing. And the relationship between the two heroes, pizza-delivering slacker Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) and fussbudget schoolteacher Chet (Aziz Ansari) is sketched out so hastily that we never quite know why to root for them either other than, well, they’re the protagonists.
We’re also on their side because Eisenberg and Ansari can be funny together. They’re well-matched physically—two small-framed, baby-faced young men with overdeveloped verbal skills—and the movie kicks off with some amusing dude banter. (When Nick refers to himself as a “man” in conversation, Chet scoffs, “You had a Lunchables for dinner last night!”) Ambitionless Nick would be fine coasting along smoking weed, renting Lethal Weapon, and pining for Chet’s twin sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), with whom he spent one magic night long ago. But he falls victim to the ill-conceived kidnapping scheme of Dwayne (McBride) and Travis (Swardson). In order to raise money to hire a hit man to kill Dwayne’s rich, jerky father (Fred Ward), they’ve decided to strap a bomb to a total stranger and force him to rob a bank. (The filmmakers have denied basing their story on the Brian Wells collar bomb case, which it superficially resembles.)
When Nick arrives to deliver a pizza at their isolated junkyard compound, Dwayne and Travis don ape masks and chloroform him before outfitting him in a vest wired with explosives. The moment when Nick wakes up to see their masked faces looming over him, and then finds the vest, is realistically terrifying, and Eisenberg plays it straight, hyperventilating and whimpering with panic. But instead of exploring the real sadism and danger of this moment, Fleischer chooses to go broad, making fun of the barely competent kidnappers’ thuggish posturing. But if Dwayne and Travis occupy a cartoonish, low-stakes fictional universe, what are we to do with Nick’s legitimate distress?
Even a light caper movie like this one needs to address basic questions about its characters’ motivations and thought processes. I’ll accept a lot of holes in a plot as long as some basic logic is established—couldn’t Nick and Chet at least have tried to call the cops or a bomb-defusing hotline before agreeing to the cockamamie bank-holdup plan? (The bad guys threaten to detonate the vest if they see any cops outside Nick’s house, but that wouldn’t prevent a phone call.) I respect that this movie wants to keep it short and sweet—there should be more 83-minute heist comedies, not fewer—but everything between the bursts of violence feels cursory and rushed, especially the romantic relationship between Nick and Kate, which later becomes pivotal to the action plot.
Finally, 30 Minutes or Less culminates in a gonzo shootout involving some pretty stomach-churning violence. That in itself wouldn’t constitute a problem if the audience had any idea how to feel about the people all this bad stuff is happening to. Are Dwayne and Travis any better or worse than the Latino gangster (Michael Peña) who tries to horn in on their plan? How are we supposed to laugh at the villains’ gory comeuppances while also cheering on their interpersonal breakthroughs? Have Nick and Chet done too many shitty things to one another to deserve one another’s continued friendship? Rather than sort through the various contradictory emotional demands this final conflagration places on the viewer, it’s easier to shift into neutral and remember some of the great moments from Zombieland.