Very few directors have a distinctive style and technique developed by their first film. But when Ruben Fleischer arrived on the Hollywood scene in 2009 with the tautly-constructed, surprisingly clever “Zombieland”, it was clear that he was one such rarity.
In the new film “30 Minutes or Less”, Fleischer re-teams with that film’s star Jesse Eisenberg, whose profile has since been raised considerably with his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Social Network”. Fleischer brings back many winning qualities that “Zombieland” possessed — a raunchy, loose swagger coupled with a taut running time (both films run under 85 minutes).
But the unique thing about Fleischer — he genuinely is interested in developing characters for us to identify with, root for and in some cases, root against. Here, he has two sets of best friends — one considered “good”, one considered “bad”, but both given equal attention in the film and equal measure of development by the actors.
The “good” guys are Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari as Nick and Chet. Nick is a stoner pizza-boy and Chet is becoming a successful teacher; the disconnect between the duo’s success being the source of some tension. But when Nick delivers a pizza one fateful night the “bad” guys come into play.
Danny McBride and Nick Swardson are Dwayne and Travis. Dwayne has a considerable inheritance to gain from his father, but first, the guy has to kick the bucket. Dwayne wants to hire an assassin to take care of that, but to get the money, straps a bomb to Nick. Nick has nine hours to somehow come up with 100 grand or else the bomb on his chest will explode, and he enlists Chet to help him out.
All of this sounds very serious and grave, and I do have the feeling that had a dramatic approach been taken, a really gripping thriller could have been carved out of the material. Instead, a very comedic approach is taken to it, which both helps and hurts “30 Minutes” in the long run.
If there’s a fault to be had, it’s not with the cast. These four principal actors are, at least, very talented comedians, and in Eisenberg’s case, an exceptional dramatic actor. It’s truly the dialogue between these two duos, and the care that the film takes to making them seem like realistic friends (if not realistic human beings) goes a long way.
But for an 83-minute film, there’s quite a lot of unrewarding and random gags. It’s simply too inconsistent. For example, there’s one set-sequence mid-way through the film — to come up with the cash, Nick and Chet opt to rob a local bank. It’s built up deliberately (if not slowly), and hits fantastic comedic beats throughout. It’s slow-burn comedy, and it’s great.
Contrast this, however, with McBride and Swardson’s brand of comedy — shouting mostly hilarious, profane non-sequiturs. The two don’t really mesh together cohesively, resulting in a movie that feels oddly disconnected with itself.
“30 Minutes or Less” is a film not quite as taut as it should be, and given the talent involved, not quite as funny. It hits a lot of great beats, mostly with the ways that it builds up the four primary characters. So often in modern American comedies, the filmmakers spend attention on the gags to the extent that the characters are over-looked. “30 Minutes or Less” is curious in that it has the inverse dilemma. B-