This new action comedy from Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) starts out at high speed, but before long it’s running on fumes, and by the last reel it sputters to a stop. “30 Minutes of Less” would have been better if the title actually reflected its length. Of course then it would barely pass muster as an episode of a TV series, and certainly couldn’t be passed off as a feature. (At just eighty-three minutes it’s short as it is.)
Jesse Eisenberg, who excelled in “Zombieland” before stepping into “The Social Network,” stars as Nick, a laid-back pizza-delivery guy in not-so-beautiful Grand Rapids, Michigan. Late one night he’s taken prisoner by a couple of doofus cronies, Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), who strap a homemade bomb to the poor fellow’s chest and order him to rob a bank for them. (Dwayne needs the cash to pay a hit-man, a manic homeboy played by Michael Pena, to kill his father, a growling ex-military man, so he can inherit the old man’s money.) What follows is a would-be dark comedy of errors that proves to be error-filled in all the wrong ways.
The problems begin with the script. Michael Diliberti was obviously inspired by the story of Pennsylvania pizza guy Brian Wells, a forty-something shmuck who died in 2003 when the bomb he was wearing during a bank robbery exploded. Though he claimed during the event that the bomb had been put on him by unknown crooks and he was an unwilling dupe, it later transpired that he was actually in on the scheme from the beginning, though he was unaware the explosive was real. His cohorts—a man and a woman—were ultimately convicted and locked up.
One can imagine an intriguing black comedy being made of this scenario, but Diliberti chooses to go for a “Harold and Kumar” vibe instead, turning the middle-aged schlub into a young slacker and giving him a manic chum, beginning schoolteacher Chet (Aziz Ansari), to bicker with as they try to steal the money and save Nick’s skin. Their clumsy efforts—which also involve Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), Chet’s lovely sister with whom Nick’s long been infatuated, naturally go awry, leading to all sorts of chaos, including plenty of violence.
That’s not necessarily a bad premise, but Diliberti messes it up, failing to make Nick and Aziz likable characters. As a result the onus falls on Eisenberg and Ansari to get you to root for Nick and Chet, and though they try hard, except for the occasional good line they’re stranded with dumb dialogue even they can’t sell. Eisenberg merely opts for the sad-sack quality that comes too easily to him, while Ansari is all bug-eyed and dithering—he’s essentially a stand-up comic who doesn’t yet realize that on screen you have to vary your act in order to keep it fresh over feature length. As for Vadsaria, she’s pretty but is stuck with a drab damsel-in-distress role.
Even worse, though, is the duo of Dwayne and Travis. They’re meant to be a couple of goofy loons, but as written Dwayne is just a foul-mouthed creep, and McBride—certainly the most overrated “comic genius” to come along in recent years—does nothing but snarl and cuss through the part, earning no laughs in the process. Swardson is less offensive as his hapless pal, but he’s not terribly funny either, and Travis’ expertise in bombs comes to seem far too appropriate in a picture that’s one itself. As Dwayne’s dad, veteran Fred Ward falls into the McBride syndrome too, merely blustering his way through an ill-conceived role, as does the younger Pena. Their single scene together is especially flat.
It’s also very nasty, which has to be laid at the feet of Fleischer, who melded comedy and grisly action cleverly in “Zombieland” but here appears incapable of making them work together. That the comedy is limp is largely the fault of the script, but Fleischer compounds things by staging it lifelessly; and he’s utterly hopeless in the violent scenes—one involving a character incinerated by a flame-thrower—which aren’t just sloppily choreographed but feel like they’re in a different movie altogether. He’s certainly not helped by Jess Hall’s cinematography, which is pedestrian even during car-chases (though it does capture the grubbiness of the rusting urban setting), or by Anne Baumgarten’s choppy editing (though to be fair, she was limited by what she had to deal with). Otherwise the look of the picture is thoroughly nondescript.
It must have been a sense of loyalty that persuaded Eisenberg, fresh from the triumph of “Network,” to join with Fleischer again in so ramshackle a vehicle. He has to learn that careers can easily be derailed by one or two bad choices. But at least you don’t have to make one yourself by wasting your time and money on this clunker.