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Movie review: '30 Minutes or Less'

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari go gangsta in this action comedy from the director of 'Zombieland.'

August 12, 2011|By Michael Phillips, Tribune Newspapers critic
  • Jesse Eisenberg stars in "30 Minutes or Less."
Jesse Eisenberg stars in "30 Minutes or Less." (Wilson Webb, Wilson Webb )

Fast, cheap and out of control and set in glamorous Grand Rapids, Mich., director Ruben Fleischer's "30 Minutes or Less" doesn't even crack the 80-minute mark if you exclude the end credits. The same was true of Fleischer's feature film debut, the very funny "Zombieland," which contained more visual wit and kinetic energy than most action comedies we're seeing lately.

Fleischer and his editor, Alan Baumgarten, have complementary senses of humor; they know how to cut for maximum punctuation as well as how to cut to the chase.

Crisscrossing between sets of combustible bromances, the story pivots on Nick, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who delivers pizzas for a living. His buddy Chet, played by Aziz Ansari, teaches elementary school and has a twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria) who is the love of Nick's semblance of a life.

On the other side of town, meanwhile, wastrel sociopath Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his minion Travis (Nick Swardson) plan to kill Dwayne's mean, rich father (Fred Ward) for inheritance money. They need a hostage to rob a bank (?? Oh, whatever) to come up with $100,000 to pay the hit man (an amusingly sinister Michael Pena). The pizza boy-man presents a ripe stooge indeed, and for most of "30 Minutes or Less" Nick, against his increasingly panicky will, runs around with explosives strapped to his chest, while the criminals alternately threaten his extinction and hang out at strip clubs or taco shops, dreaming of their future.

When the comedy works, it really works. The scene where congenitally timid and generally law-abiding Nick and Chet go gangsta and get into the '80s action-movie spirit of their first foray into bank robbery charges hard and builds cleverly. Fleischer locates an effective mixture of jokes and violence here; elsewhere the mixture is less sure of itself. The most jarring sequences recall the bits in "Pineapple Express" that mistook easy brutality for comic realism.

"30 Minutes or Less" may be too jarring, period, for most people. It's based loosely on a fatal 2003 Erie, Pa., incident involving a pizza delivery man, a set of explosives and a group of bank robbers with whom he may or may not have colluded. The film has no interest in following the grim events of what actually happened. Even so: This is one comedy built on a queasy-making premise.

The other drawback here has two names: "Danny" and "McBride." Each time the story flies off Nick and Chet and lands back with Dwayne and Travis, it's like a flat

tire going flupp-flupp-flupp. Screenwriter Michael Diliberti has talent, and some of his funny lines are actually f-word-free, as when Nick argues with Chet about being ready for a serious adulthood and Chet replies with: "You? An adult? You had

a Lunchables for dinner!" Eisenberg's deadpan precision works well with Ansari's wide-eyed wonder at the life of crime he's suddenly leading.

The movie ends up being just sharp enough at its peaks to be frustrating in its valleys. But the laughs are there.

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