In a summer packed with R-rated comedies, 30 Minutes or Less is the last one out the gate. It’s not the most emotionally fulfilling (Bridesmaids), it’s not the one that delivers the most laughs (Horrible Bosses), and it’s certainly not the worst (The Hangover Part II). What 30 Minutes or Less has working for it is that it’s short. There’s hardly an ounce of fat on it and it races from scene to scene trying to get as many laughs in as possible. The comic ensemble does a terrific job and while director Ruben Fleischer doesn’t show off the visual flair he demonstrated in Zombieland, he keeps the movie crass, fast, and funny.
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a slacker who has resigned himself to be a pizza delivery boy. It’s not because he has daddy issues or because he’s got loads of potential that’s he afraid to embrace. He’s just lazy and lacks ambition. Nick has to readjust his attitude when wannabe criminal masterminds Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) strap a bomb to his chest and tell him he has twelve hours to rob a bank or they’ll detonate his torso. Dwayne and Travis want the money so they can pay a hitman (Michael Peña) to knock off Dwayne’s rich ex-Marine father (Fred Ward) and Dwayne can get his inheritance. Nick calls on the help of his estranged best friend Chet and the two bumble their way to pulling off the heist and getting the money back to Dwayne and Travis.
30 Minutes or Less skillfully bounces between multiple plotlines within its 83-minute runtime. You have Nick and Chet, a brief romance subplot between Nick and Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), Dwayne and Travis, and Chango the hitman. But almost every scene manages to push the movie forward and when it slows down, there’s an actor whose charisma can carry the energy to the next scene. Eisenberg discards the nerdy outsider persona he’s become known for (a wise move since it reached its apex in The Social Network) and gets to cut loose as a foul-mouthed layabout. He’s also young enough that we’re not seeing yet another man-child character in an R-rated comedy (they’re fun but they’ve become far too ubiquitous). McBride once again plays the arrogant redneck and while his comic timing and delivery are always superb, that kind of character will always pale against his Kenny Powers.
The actors who truly own the movie are Ansari and Peña. Chet is arguably the movie’s straight man but rather than play the role dry or detached, Ansari provides a manic energy that has him commenting on the ridiculousness of their predicament but realistically trying to get out of it as quickly as possible. It’s a funny and natural way to remind the audience that the characters aren’t simply accepting that a person is wearing a bomb-vest and their lives are in danger. Peña is even more amazing as he takes a nothing role and turns it into a scene-stealer. Folks who saw Observe and Report know that he’s a comic force to be reckoned with and 30 Minutes or Less is a reminder for anyone who forgot. Chango is a professional hitman living in the body of a deluded street thug and Peña mines that disparity for maximum comic effect every time he opens his mouth.
With comic performances this strong, it’s a bit disappointing to see Fleischer back off the visual flair of Zombieland that put him on people’s radar. There’s no need for giant words to be integrated into the setting, but for a movie that offers the visuals of a ticking clock, guys in ape masks, and other ridiculous imagery, the movie plays it safe. However, I can understand his desire not to repeat himself, and his greatest accomplishment this time around is keeping the movie as lean as possible and letting his actors bring all the energy.
Sometimes it’s best for a comedy not to overstay its welcome and we may have become too accustomed to the long comedy. Not all comedies need to be Apatownian with long scenes of riffing and emotional character arcs. 30 Minutes or Less runs like its central character: as if it were about to explode.