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Director Ruben Fleischer should call the “making of” documentary of this film “86 Minutes or Less.” The filmmaker who landed squarely on the Hollywood directing hot list with 2009’s rollicking sleeper hit Zombieland has crammed the action and laughs into another unusually short runtime. Distinct advantages exist to the “all business” attitude toward filmmaking, but 30 Minutes or Less reveals the criticality of good writing in making something like this work. The narrative of Zombieland is much tighter, but 30 Minutes or Less still packs the laughs into a sufficient summer action comedy.
Zombieland star Jesse Eisenberg helps out Fleischer again as Nick, a similar loser in the form of a pizza delivery guy, only Nick is much cruder and gutsier. The neurotic hopeless romantic that the Oscar-nominated actor perfected prior to said Oscar nod only rears its head in the freak-out moments resulting from having a bomb strapped to his chest by a pair of monkey-masked amateur criminals who’ve given him nine hours to rob a bank.
Although we know that synopsis coming in, the film spends at least 20 minutes attempting to properly set it up. We meet Nick, a disappointment by all accounts, and his longtime friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), a school teacher. Somehow they provoke each other to the point where Nick reveals he once slept with Chet’s twin sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) in high school (that he’s still secretly in love with) and Chet lashes back with the secret that he pushed the first domino in what resulted in Nick’s parents’ divorce. Needless to say, the two end up on bad terms before Nick comes to him the next day desperate for his help in solving his time-sensitive predicament.
Meanwhile, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) get an unusual amount of back story for your typical dumb criminals. The two good-for-nothings decide to take action when Dwayne’s lottery-winning ex-marine father provokes them by calling them out on their lack of life direction. Dwayne convinces Travis, a weapons and explosives expert, to help him plot a way to kill his dad and get his inheritance so they can open up a tanning salon that will front for a prostitution ring. They decide to hire a hitman (Michael Peña) whom they must pay $100,000 and ultimately determine the smartest way to do that is to force someone to rob a bank for them. These scenes give those characters too much needless motivation, but the extra screen time provides McBride and Swardson lots more opportunities to make us laugh.
For a film that should feel suspenseful if for nothing else but the implications of the title 30 Minutes or Less, this juggling of subplots dampens the pace. Humor does flow constantly throughout, however, and Eisenberg’s desperation to make this all seem very real and frightening in tandem with Ansari’s gift for not being too self-serious work in the film’s favor. If only the camera didn’t dart away from them as often as it does and kill whatever momentum they built.
Broken down into categories, 30 Minutes or Less gets good marks for comedy, but subpar marks for action because the writing doesn’t fuel the action like it should. Fleischer has not lost any touch in what’s always a challenging sophomore effort; he simply doesn’t get as good of stuff to work with this time around. Fortunately, the four main talented comedians offer up enough to make this one a worthwhile 86 minutes or so.
30 Minutes or Less
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Written by Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson