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In 2003, a Pennsylvania pizza-delivery man robbed a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck. Police intervened; the bomb went off. Investigators eventually argued that the man was part of the robbery scheme and not quite its victim, although he’d initially believed he’d be wearing a fake explosive. Allegedly, one of the man’s accomplices hoped to use the stolen money to hire an assassin to kill her father and inherit his wealth. Whether the pizza guy was truly guilty or coerced into committing a crime, we’ll never know. But the story made someone in Hollywood think, That would make a great movie—but let’s make it a comedy!
The result is 30 Minutes or Less, and your enjoyment of the film—or, more likely, your decision to see it at all—may rest on whether you regard the comedification of such material as a tasteless idea or a brilliant one. Directed by Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer (who was once a Washington City Paper intern) from a script from freshman screenwriter Michael Diliberti, the film is violent, fitfully funny, often offensive, and wildly uneven in tone. Even if you laugh, if you know the backstory, you won’t be able to shake the nagging queasiness that comes from knowing this actually happened.
30 Minutes opens with Nick (Jesse Eisenberg, in a huge step down from The Social Network) running red lights and dodging children in order to deliver a pizza in the titular amount of time. (The sequence is set to The Hives’ “Tick Tick Boom.” Classy.) Meanwhile, a more egregious man-child, Dwayne (Danny McBride), and his dirtbag friend Travis (Nick Swardson) are pissy because Dwayne’s ex-Marine father (Fred Ward) doesn’t want them laying about his palatial house (he won $10 million in the lottery) and eating his food. Actually, when he walks in on the pair, they’re not actually laying about but pretending to hump Jason Voorhees as they watch Friday the 13th Part III in 3D. You’ll sympathize with dad.
Dwayne’s horrible mistreatment makes him receptive to an idea a gold-digging stripper gives him: Kill the guy and get your inheritance early. First, though, he’ll need $100,000 to hire a hit man. (Does this sound familiar?) A dim lightbulb goes off, and Dwayne decides to execute a robbery by proxy. For whatever reason, he decides that proxy will be Nick, lures him into his scrap-yard hideout by ordering a pie, knocks him out, and straps a bomb to him. Nick will have 10 hours to rob a bank, then will be given a code to diffuse the bomb. If he doesn’t comply, apparent arms genius Travis will detonate the explosives. High jinks will surely ensue!
Naturally, Nick needs a partner in crime, so he begs his BFF, Chet (Aziz Ansari), to help him out. Also naturally, there has to be a love interest, who happens to be Chet’s twin sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). That setup guarantees two things: 1) that there will be some unresolved tension between the friends, and 2) that there will be Indian jokes. Diliberti also throws in jabs at “camel jockeys,” gays, and AIDS amid all the holy-shit-what-do-we-do! wackiness. It’s difficult to laugh while you’re cringing.
Eisenberg does his usual motormouthed straight man, though with less success than in films like Zombieland and Adventureland. McBride’s character is too repellent to be funny. The movie’s only saving grace is Ansari, whose high-pitched voice and overall geniality make even low-key riffs about Netflix and 5-hour energy drinks entertaining. It’s uncertain whether a cop chase set to Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” is meant to be ironic. The bombs, rifles, and flamethrowers, however, are deadly serious—which is perhaps how this real-life story should have been handled.