Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less should be a perfectly serviceable buddy movie. Sure, it falls for some typical pitfalls — a slacker trades bro-laced, homophobic barbs with his best friend; a pretty girl sits on the sidelines with nothing to do; everybody acts as if they’re witless teenagers. But that’s never stopped past comedies from delivering the laughs.
Then again, not too many of those can say they’re based on real-life murders.’
There’s a conscience-sized hitch in director Fleischer’s follow-up to Zombieland, and what should be a relatively innocuous, if not middling, action-comedy turns disturbing once you learn about the story of Brian Wells.’
Wells, a pizza deliveryman who worked in Erie, Pa., died in 2003 when a bomb fastened to his neck exploded, ripping a fist-sized hole in his chest. A criminal trial later revealed the odd particulars surrounding Wells’s death — how he concocted a bank robbery with two others, only to be double-crossed, strapped to a rigged bomb, and given a series of tasks to complete in an impossible amount of time. And as if the whole ordeal wasn’t macabre enough, local news stations accidentally aired the murder, live on TV.
Hilarious, right? Hollywood thought so.
In the comic reimagining of the story, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) gets kidnapped by a dirtbag asshole named Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his dopey juggalo friend (Nick Swardson), who strap a friendly-looking bomb to his chest — seriously, it has a smiley face on it — and give him 10 hours to track down $100,000. Why do they need that much money?
(Hold on, it’s time to abandon logic.)
Because a stripper named Juicy (Bianca Kajlich) told Dwanye she knows a guy who will kill Dwanye’s dad (Fred Ward) for $100,000. With pops out of the way, Dwayne stands to inherit the last of his lottery winnings and open his dream business — a brothel fronted by a tanning salon.
With time running out, Nick and his buddy Chet (Aziz Ansari) load up on dollar-store goods and decide to rob a bank. But — oh no! — the guys are on the outs because Nick admits that he slept with Chet’s sister (Dilshad Vadsaria) almost a decade earlier. All while a bomb threatens to blow their shit up, the dudes find time to bicker, fight and reconcile.
Screenwriter Michael Diliberti deserves a little bit of credit — he could have simply ripped off the disturbing murder for cheap jokes and an R rating, then been done with it. That he fit any comedic set pieces within his speedy plotting is somewhat impressive. Still, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t have the heft or sincerity to suggest that anyone involved is concerned about Nick’s — or more importantly, Wells’s — dangerous plight. There’s an uncomfortable discord between source and product, an unresolved weak link that lingers when it should barely register.
But that’s not to say that funny isn’t involved in 30 Minutes or Less. The cast has an impressive set of comic chops — especially Ansari, who plays off of Eisenberg’s neurosis with a playful bombast that’s become his signature style. McBride also shines by stewing in a profanity-heavy ego that seems inspired by ne’er-do-well baseball player Kenny Powers on HBO’s Eastbound and Down. By letting these guys fall back on comfortable comic styles, they riff on each other well, offering enough humor to prove that they understand the dynamic attitude needed in a buddy comedy.
Still, there’s that divide that just can’t be shaken away. There’s plenty of humor for the taking — the cast makes sure of it — but only at the expense of reality. What’s lost when you laugh at something that so blatantly profits off of a man’s death? Is it wrong to bastardize real tragedy into the cinematic mainstream? Fleischer seems determined to offer no answers, leaving troubling that gnaw while you chuckle.’
As a buddy comedy, 30 Minutes or Less works. It’s just everything else that doesn’t.