Watching 30 Minutes or Less, based on an actual bank robbery attempt, has to cause a strange split in the audience. It top bills three comedic actors that do tend to specialize in making audiences laugh uncomfortably.
If you didn't know anything about the real event, you could give in to superior snickering at the narrow-mindedness of Danny McBride's character, a pathetic loser who thinks nothing of using everyone around him to make his dreams come true. You know, like most of his characters.
In the original incident, however, McBride's Dwayne killed an innocent man. Though the real robbery did indeed sound like some sort of Hollywood heist idea, the hapless pizza delivery man with a bomb strapped to his chest died. This was a story of ruthless criminals who blew up a human being on the chance they could get some money.
They might have been idiots. With McBride and Nick Swardson in the roles of the two masterminds, it's a sure bet. And with Jesse Eisenberg as Nick, the pizza delivery driver, director Ruben Fleischer throws everything into doubt as to how we are supposed to approach this movie.
That makes for something interesting, but not exactly hilarious. Eisenberg tries gamely to be something different than usual, pulling it off physically in an opening set piece establishing him as a slacker. Then he opens his mouth, and though his character might not be terribly bright, it's clear that Eisenberg just can't not play someone with a lot going on inside that can't be expressed.
Good instinct, then, to pair him with Aziz Ansari as Nick's best friend Chet. Ansari expresses everything, which makes his confession of a list of betrayals to Nick almost too believable to be funny. While Nick accomplishes nothing, Chet has worked his way up from substitute to permanent full-time middle school teacher, another movie this summer not exactly working as the best recruitment tool for education.
Though the script by Michael Diliberti focuses on Nick's plight, strapped to a bomb and forced to rob a bank for $100,000, it's McBride and Swardson that drive the plot. It's not that you've seen McBride play this before – though you have – it's that, again, these guys seem all too plausible for the laughter to flow freely.
McBride's loser Dwayne has no real ambition, chafing under his ex-Marine Major father's (Fred Ward) scorn and waiting for "the Major" to die so he can inherit the old man's lottery winnings. With Travis (Swardson) as his slightly tech savvier but clearly subservient sidekick, Dwayne bitterly daydreams and wastes time drinking, playing with explosives and just hanging out.
A local stripper (Bianca Kajlich) offers to set Dwayne up with a hit man to take out the Major, and a scheme is hatched. It's almost refreshing to see a cinematic sociopath who isn't actually a genius. Regardless, it doesn't bother Dwayne at all that he's going to have his father killed (though it bothers Travis), and that he'll get other people killed in the process.
Throughout 30 Minutes or Less, the lack of empathy Dwayne has is occasionally funny, but mostly chilling. This movie could easily veer into tense drama, especially because Eisenberg isn't afraid to make Nick completely real.
He also has an undercurrent of knowing that he has wasted his life, and being face to face with the possibility of it ending in eight hours does bring things to sharper focus. Even though Chet stresses about long-term consequences, Nick clearly sees that even when he accomplishes the steps he needs to take, he could still fail and explode.
It's hard to give in and fully embrace this movie, because though its screenplay holds surprises with both comedy and drama, only Eisenberg can fully inhabit both tones. It's something I first noticed years ago with The Cable Guy, directed by 30 Minutes or Less producer Ben Stiller – some actors have just programmed audiences to find them funny, and it's hard for them to blur the line.
Ansari doesn't even try to blur it. He's a funny comic mind, no doubt, but his performance here is like a slightly more sedate Chris Tucker, all high pitched hysteria, wide eyes and attitude. It's hard to believe that his character has a twin sister (Dilshad Valsaria) so realistic when he is such a cartoon.
That tonal control shifts all the way to the end, leaving 30 Minutes or Less as a somewhat unsettling experience. It's not exactly entertaining, but it is interesting. It's not exactly hilarious, but it tends to stick with you a bit.
But right now, the subject matter just feels a little hard to laugh at.