On the afternoon of August 28th 2003 in Eyrie, Pennsylvania pizza deliveryman Brian Wells chest exploded as he sat cross-legged in the middle of a by-road, pleading in anguish with nearby police to hasten the arrival of a bomb disposal unit.
Hours earlier the unfortunate Mr. Wells was about to finish his shift when he made the fateful decision to deliver what would become the last pizzas of his career. Upon arriving at the address he was accosted and an explosive device fastened to his body by way of a metallic collar. Wells was then given a list of tasks by his tormentor(s), his survival supposedly dependent upon their completion. One requirement was to rob a bank of some 250,000 dollars. Swiftly apprehended by law enforcement with a meagre 8K as his spoils, Wells was handcuffed and isolated at gunpoint whilst disbelieving officers vacillated. He would be dead three minutes before the arrival of the bomb squad...
Cruel, macabre and sadistic are just some of the adjectives which come to mind to describe this most bizarre of modern crimes. Now dear reader if there were to be a film inspired by the tragic the case of the collar bomb, how would you envisage it? A dark action-thriller? A post-SAW heist/horror hybrid? How about a buddy comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Danny McBride directed by Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland fame? No, didn’t enter my head either.
In “30 Minutes or Less” Eisenberg plays slacker pizza boy Nick who tears around town in his rickety Ford Mustang endeavouring to deliver doughy goodness within a half-hour of orders being placed. Stuck in minimum wage limbo as others such as childhood friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) move onto greener career pastures, Nick needs a motivational shot in the arm or rather a ticking time-bomb strapped to his chest in order to get his life in gear. Enter Peter Pan Syndrome afflicted rich boy Dwayne (Danny McBride). An inveterate wastrel living off the Lottery win of his caustic Vietnam veteran father (the redoubtable Fred Ward), Dwayne fears Daddy’s profligacy might eventually result in a meagre inheritance.
Burning with delusions of entrepreneurial grandeur the dim-witted man-child hopes to establish a tanning salon-cum-brothel. Inspired by harpy stripper “Juicy” (Bianca Kajlich), Dwayne resolves to get his grubby mitts on the requisite capital by hiring a professional killer to bump off the old man. Where then to get the cash for a spot of patricide? Coerce a total stranger into robbing a bank for you for course. Thus with the assistance of his equally moronic yet pyrotechnically gifted friend Travis (Nick Swardson), our wannabe gangster Dwayne sets out to effect a dubious scheme that will see a certain pizza boy have a very stressful day indeed.
“30 Minutes or Less” is that most modern of comedies i.e. one where a tight, well constructed, consistently gag-laden script has been eschewed for the convenience value of ad-libbed random banter peppered with cock and vagina jokes. I blame Will Ferrell. The ascendance of the so called “Frat Pack” of which Ferrell is pater familias and which counts many current stateside comedy luminaries amongst its ranks (Vaughn, Stiller, Wilson, Carrell et al) has seen a sophomoric improv-heavy style predominate throughout the noughties and beyond. It’s the comedic equivalent of firing a scattergun; sometimes the buckshot will hit its mark and shatter your funny bone, oftentimes it misses entirely. In the case of Fleischer’s buddy action-comedy you’d wonder if the gun was even loaded.
Our leading man Jesse Eisenberg reveals himself to be one trick pony, his nebbish geek-schtick more suited to roles requiring the delivery of pithy put-downs and glib remarks as opposed to genuine emoting. Having a time-bomb affixed to your chest would no doubt cause considerable psychological trauma yet Eisenberg’s displays of distress are wholly unconvincing. So too his profession of love for the narrative's token hottie in a particularly excruciating scene.
Aziz Ansari delivers a manic turn as sidekick Chet, appearing just as frenzied before becoming embroiled in friend Nick’s explosive escapade as after. Histrionics alone do not a performance make. The most fun is provided by the criminal bromance of McBride and Swardson, their doltish rapport infinitely more enjoyable than strained comedy of the Eisenberg-Ansari dynamic. However improvised diatribes very soon become wearying and downright formulaic following the umpteenth pussy reference or bottom barrel racial epithet.
“30 Minutes or Less” falls into the realist subgenre of yank comedy given its dark subject matter, rubbing shoulders with “Observe and Report” and “Pineapple Express”. Like the latter Seth Rogen vehicle it too is a tonal mess. One moment a distraught character will be tearing out a hunk of shrapnel embedded in their back following a near-fatal car wreck, the next delivering a light, teasing repartee as they gaily saunter down a suburban avenue with bank robbery loot in hand. Then we have the motivational vagaries of players such Swardson’s Travis who fluctuates between experiencing pangs of conscience as regards the scheme to not blinking an eye when torching someone with a flamethrower. It just doesn’t gel. There’s no high stakes sense of desperation pervading the flick, the comedy at odds with the realistic flourishes of the action and vice versa. One can’t help but feel the material would have been better serviced had it been shot circa 1985 with John McTiernan directing a Shane Black screenplay.
The sun has long set upon the golden era of buddy-centric action comedy, Fleischer’s cap-doffing to canonical 80’s films such as Die Hard and Beverly Hills Cop only serving to accentuate how comparatively limp-dicked his work is in trying to capture that zeitgeist. Anaemic as an actioner and only good for a few frat house giggles as comedy, “30 Minutes or Less” fails to deliver much bang for your buck.