Sometimes, if a director and star strike gold together on their first collaboration, they’ll try to recapture that same magic with a different story. Such is the case with Ruben Fleischer and Jesse Eisenberg with ’30 Minutes or Less,’ relatively fresh off of the success of ‘Zombieland‘.

The task of delivering pizzas in 30 minutes or less is a difficult task for driver Nick (Eisenberg). Many of his customers place orders that are intentionally difficult so they can get free food, but it doesn’t help that Nick is a slacker. His best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) is a reasonably straight-laced teacher. Their friendship hits a rough patch when it is revealed that Nick was once involved with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) and that Chet caused Nick’s parents to divorce.

Dwayne (Danny McBride) is a thirty-something slacker who comes up with schemes to get rich with his friend Travis (Nick Swardson). A stripper named Juici (Bianca Kajlich) gives Dwayne an idea, he can hire an assassin to kill his own rich, no-nonsense father (Fred Ward) and not have to worry about working again. It only costs $100,000 to hire this particular assassin. Of course, Dwayne and Travis don’t have that kind of money, so they concoct a scheme to get it.

This scheme involves ordering a pizza, kidnapping the delivery person, strapping a bomb to (in this case) his chest, and forcing him to rob a bank or else be blown up. They would wear masks to help cover all of their bases and assure that the crime never be traced back to them. Nick picked the wrong day to come in to work.

The first part of the plan is set into motion. Great for the guys, bad for Nick. Will he figure out how to remove the bomb strapped to his chest? Will he commit the robbery? Even if he does, can he trust Dwayne and Travis to let him go? Will Nick put everything aside and reconnect with Chet? Where does he stand with Kate, whom he still has feelings for?

It’s comparing apples and oranges, but many of you will probably wonder how this stacks up against ‘Zombieland.’ Simply put, ’30 Minutes or Less’ is missing the sense of fun the former film had. There is energy galore and not a single wasted scene, which explains the film’s brief duration. Most comedies shouldn’t run too long anyway, right? The breakneck pace is one of the stronger aspects of the film.

Another strength, depending on your perspective, is the audacious premise. Of course the tone is dark at times, not only with the plot, but with how the characters treat each other. Most of them are self-absorbed and harmful to those who care about them. A lot of the best laughs come from so called ‘friends’ exchanging sarcastic remarks/insults back and forth.  They’re little moments, but they add up.

Too often, though, the film mistakes ‘mean’ for ‘funny.’ It’s hard to root for anyone and the situation Nick finds himself in is truly horrific. Maybe it wants to achieve something like ‘Pineapple Express’ but action comedies are easier combinations to swallow than suspense comedies. This could have been a fantastic straightforward suspense film, but that would involve the plot taking a break from insults, smoking weed, and making sexual references. It wasn’t meant to be.

This examiner has stated before that he doesn’t fully understand McBride’s appeal (see ‘Your Highness‘). All too often, he seems to be a Will Ferrell-light: always playing a moron with unearned confidence. That continues here although this is a role much more suited to his style than in the former movie which had an open-ended plot and forced McBride to be funny on his own. Swardson has demonstrated some comic chops (not so-much on film but in his television show ‘Pretend Time’) but he is mostly following McBride’s lead here. The two have a nice chemistry and manage to create some of the film’s stronger chuckles.

Eisenberg actually does a variation on his usual character type. It’s no ‘Social Network‘ but instead of a meek-everyman, he is a decidedly aggressive in his selfishness. Outside of his ‘Human Giant’ series, Ansari is just another comedian trying to transition to film. So far, he has proven himself to be much better-suited to stand-up and sketch comedy than movies or hosting award shows.

Special features include: deleted scenes, outtakes, and meeting the cast and crew of the film.

Is it distasteful to craft a comedy out of a real-life situation where an innocent victim is killed? Many people will surely think so. At the very least, it would be appropriate to call this a mean-spirited comedy. Except for potentially limiting your audience, there is nothing wrong with going that route, as long as it’s funny. This only is in fits and starts.

Rated R               83 minutes         2011

This post was written by:

J.J. Ellis – When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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