REVIEW: Jesse Eisenberg Keeps 30 Minutes or Less Ticking, But Barely
Jesse Eisenberg's performance in 30 Minutes or Less is like a mirror of something you've seen before in a movie you've seen before: As an unambiguously unambitious pizza-delivery guy who's forced to rob a bank, is he riffling through the deck and pulling out the same old cards, perhaps in a slightly different order? Or is he adding subtle variations to a type of character he's played many times previously, biding his time until he can get another role like the perfectly calibrated one he played in The Social Network?
It's hard to tell with Eisenberg, who may be one of the most underwhelming good actors working today: Even when he wows us, as he did in The Social Network, he's wowing us with a shrug. The shrug is there in 30 Minutes or Less, Ruben Fleischer's follow-up to his exhilarating, sure-footed 2009 debut, Zombieland, but it's a shrug without a country. Zombieland was a picture with a strong sense of place, a metaphorical call for compatriots to band together in tough times. 30 Minutes or Less is a crime farce that's clever and funny in places, but mostly just shambling and crude. Eisenberg can't quite find his place in it, and it's easy to see why.
Eisenberg plays Nick, an alleged grown-up who hasn't yet figured out how to make the grown-up thing work. His best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), pinpoints the problem succinctly: "You? An adult? You had a Lunchables for dinner last night." Nick has some minor problems, including that dead-end pizza-delivery job, and the fact that he has a huge crush on Chet's twin sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), a development that greatly displeases Chet for numerous reasons. (Some of it has to do with simple brotherly protectiveness, but Chet is also freaked out about the idea of his best friend having sex with his own twin.) But Nick's problems combust off the charts when a couple of rec-room lowlifes -- when we first meet them, they're blowing watermelons to smithereens using both crossbows and explosives -- kidnap him and strap him into a bomb vest, informing him that they'll treat him like a human watermelon unless he agrees to rob a local bank.
The Mutt-and-Jeff schemers are played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson; they need the money to start a tanning salon/prostitution ring. And that's just one of the ways in which 30 Minutes or Less works too hard to be fun and crazy. For every line or gag that works, there are three or four more that seem to belong in a different movie altogether, either a darker one or a breezier one. Fleischer, working from a script by Michael Diliberti (who conceived the story with Matthew Sullivan), doesn't have firm control of the movie's tone: A movie can, of course, be both a black comedy and a crime caper, as 30 Minutes or Less tries to be. But Fleischer can't navigate the movie's shifting moods fluidly enough. We see real terror on Nick's face when he looks down and sees that kaboom vest he's strapped into. Then he's back into hapless goofball territory again, but the transition is rough and forced.
What's more, Fleischer doesn't seem to know what to do with all the attendant clutter of the story. A subplot involving a stripper and a street gangsta (Bianca Kajlich and Michael Peña, respectively) is necessary to resolve the movie's plot mechanics, but it only makes the workings more cumbersome.
There's also the nagging fact that the basic concept of 30 Minutes or Less bears a strong resemblance to a real-life 2003 incident, in which pizza-delivery guy Brian Wells was forced to rob a bank with a bomb locked to his neck; Wells died when the device detonated. His family has publicly reproached the filmmakers, although representatives from the movie's studio, Sony, claim that the writers were only "vaguely familiar" with the real-life case.
The writers' familiarity with the incident, and even their intentions, are beside the point. While it's true that truth is stranger than fiction, it would have been easier for me to enjoy 30 Minutes or Less if it hadn't taken the depraved craziness of its premise from a real-life horror show.
Maybe, deep in his gut, something didn't set right with Fleischer, either. His Zombieland was not only beautifully made; its mood was freewheeling and openhearted -- it was a picture in which camaraderie saves the day. 30 Minutes or Less, on the other hand, appears to have been made to please some invisible audience: It's much raunchier than Zombieland was, and its crudeness feels patched-on rather than organic. When a character defines the acronym OTPF -- "over-the-pants-fingered" -- it's as if the words had been plunked, at the last minute, into a little cartoon voice balloon hovering over her head.
There are some enjoyable, if vaguely unsettling, sequences in 30 Minutes or Less: When Chet and Nick stumble into the bank in their balaclavas, their ineptitude sets off a Rube Goldberg contraption of dark slapstick; their haplessness conjures shades of Dog Day Afternoon.
But Fleischer doesn't seem to know, ultimately, what effect he's after, and the actors suffer for it. Ansari, with his warbly monotone, works wonders with even some of the movie's lamest one-liners. I'm not sure why I laughed, or if I should have laughed, at Chet's assessment of Nick's car -- "It's like you got a Mustang and the Mustang got AIDS" -- but I did. And yet he and Eisenberg seem to inhabit the movie only half-heartedly. I find Eisenberg fascinating to watch, particularly for the way words motor out of his mouth at some 90 miles an hour, even as none of his other body parts -- save, maybe, his ever-shifting blue eyes -- appear to be moving. And in the movie's crucial moment, when he looks down and sees the danger he's been strapped into, the terror in his eyes is believable and affecting. For once, the words don't tumble out nearly so fast; his fear slows him down, and that by itself is terrifying. Eisenberg may be giving one of his stock performances here, but he still finds ways to let his character's soul shine through. He's working harder than he should have to, as if he were an actor with a figurative bomb strapped to his chest. Maybe that's what happens when you're a talented guy who's not sure which way to turn next.