The Comic Velocity of '30 Minutes or Less'

Fast and foul-mouthed, the film is a diverting ride—despite some uncomfortable echoes

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On the afternoon of August 28, 2003, a 46-year-old pizza delivery man named Brian Wells walked into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and demanded $250,000. He showed tellers a device hanging from a collar around his neck and told them it was a bomb that would go off unless he received the money. He left with just under $9,000 and, when apprehended by police shortly thereafter, claimed to have been a hostage forced to rob the bank against his will. A bomb disposal unit was called, but before it arrived the device detonated, killing Wells. (Television cameras were more prompt, and captured footage of the gruesome event.) Though many details of the bizarre plot remain unclear, it appears that Wells may have been initially a willing accomplice, who believed the bomb to be used would be fake. (A good Wired story on the entire episode can be found here.)

The stars and director of 30 Minutes or Less say they were unaware of the Wells case; the screenwriters acknowledge they were “vaguely” familiar with it. And while it’s true that the film diverges substantially from the events in Erie—most obviously by steering far afield of the tragic conclusion—the similarities are numerous, and clearly not coincidental. And unlike, say, the Coen brothers’ Fargo, which also spun elements of a real crime to its own fictional ends, 30 Minutes­ or Less—a fast, foul-mouthed, and intermittently very funny comedy—borrows Wells’s unhappy tale for purely frivolous ends. I confess I’m of mixed minds regarding the degree to which this appropriation is, well, appropriate. But it seems worthy of mention.

The movie reunites Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer with star Jesse Eisenberg, though the pairing this time out is somewhat less successful. Eisenberg plays Nick, a low-ambition, though of necessity high-velocity, distributor of Vito’s Pizza in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Motto: “30 minutes or less, or it’s free.”) Summoned to deliver a pizza to a salvage yard, he is instead accosted and chloroformed by two lowlifes in ape masks. These are Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson)—the former, eager to raise money for a hitman to kill his wealthy dad (Fred Ward); the latter, eager to please the former. When Nick awakes, wearing a C4-bedecked vest, his captors tell him he has 10 hours to rob a local bank (“by the Olive Garden”) or else his insides will intermingle unpleasantly with the outside. Nick enlists the aid of his recently estranged best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), and the two begin their career in grand larceny.

Though it eschews an undead apocalypse, 30 Minutes or Less is a nastier comedy than Zombieland, perhaps midway betweenPineapple Express and Observe and Report on the black humor scale. There are times when the movie’s insistent crassness and recourse to obscenity become tiresome. (An oral sex/voyeurism scene comes to mind, along with a substantial fraction of McBride’s dialogue.) And notwithstanding a romantic subplot involving Chet’s twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria) the narrative lens is overwhelmingly, exhaustingly male. Still, Fleischer imbues the film with the same heedless, almost kinetic momentum he brought to its predecessor, and the humor, though broad, is generally sharp, with knowing swipes at targets ranging from Point Break, Netflix, and Matchbox 20 to Alien, The Hurt Locker, and Slumdog Millionaire.

Eisenberg brings his customarily alert comic intelligence to the role of Nick. McBride, by contrast, displays rather more of his trademarked moron-machismo than one might wish: in the end, the McBride-lite offered by Swardson is more palatable (compensation, perhaps, for the embarrassments the actor endured in Just Go With It ). Ultimately, though, the movie belongs to Ansari, who steals nearly every scene he is in with his jangly, nervous intensity. I am not a watcher of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, on which Ansari stars, but his small roles in such movies asFunny People and Observe and Report (his Chick-fil-A line still lingers pleasantly) served as apt preparation for his performance here.

30 Minutes or Less is a trifle—and one that, thanks to the story on which it was based, carries some uncomfortable echoes. But as trifles go, it is well-cast, well-engineered, and, arguably, well-suited to the demands of a late-summer diversion. And at just 82 minutes, it is, as its title suggests, very quick from door to door.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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