The screenplay for 30 Minutes or Less is a tightrope between pillars of comedy and tension, and the sure-footed cast has the equilibrium to make this nail-biting balancing act well worth watching, even when we begin to fear that the string could snap at any second.
While little in director Ruben Fleischer's sophomore film comes close to being as stylized as the dynamic opening credits of Zombieland, his hit feature debut, the cast of 30 Minutes or Less genuinely elevates first-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti's colorful characters and briskly paced story to the point where our compulsion to keep watching ultimately overpowers our better judgment for enjoying a comedy so shamelessly inspired by true-life tragedy.
Small-town pizza-delivery driver Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) stumbles into an elaborate crime scheme when he's abducted by dunderheaded criminals Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), who coerce him into robbing a bank by outfitting him with a bomb set to detonate in ten hours. Desperate, Nick implores his former best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) to help him out of the predicament. But with each attempt to thwart the would-be criminal geniuses, Nick and Chet find their dire situation spinning faster out of control. Now, with the clock ticking and a ruthless Detroit pimp (Michael Peña) hot on their trail, bickering partners in crime Nick and Chet must figure out a way to diffuse their deadly predicament before it blows up in their faces.
Full disclosure: 30 Minutes or Less is loosely based on a real-life incident that unfolded in August of 2003, when 46-year-old Erie, PA pizza-delivery driver Brian Douglas Wells was forced to perform a similar crime under almost identical circumstances. Ultimately, Wells was killed on live television when the bomb detonated during a news broadcast. While some moviegoers may have no problem with Hollywood filmmakers mining such an admittedly bizarre scenario largely for laughs, others may not necessarily wish to support or encourage those who have no qualms about making light of a situation that resulted in a violent, real-life death. Though the filmmakers casually claim to have had no knowledge of the Wells case while producing 30 Minutes or Less, a quick glance at the details reveals far too many striking similarities to chalk it up to mere coincidence.
That said, Fleischer and Diliberti have crafted a highly watchable comic thriller by creating characters that are at once cartoonish yet completely relatable, and rarely giving viewers time to catch their breath once the countdown begins. By establishing a sincere rift between Nick and Chet before the main plot gets under way, Diliberti smartly gets us to emotionally invest in the characters, only to up the ante by involving a third, somewhat peripheral character in the mix as soon as we -- and the protagonists -- think we have the situation all figured out. His screenplay strikes an unusual balance between the protagonists and antagonists that keeps us guessing as the power begins to shift back and forth between the two groups. Meanwhile, Fleischer and editor Alan Baumgarten establish a nimble pace that keeps the action careening quickly toward an unpredictable climax.
Nonetheless, it's the cast of 30 Minutes or Less that keeps the tone lighthearted where it could have otherwise drifted into dark territory. Few contemporary actors have mastered the art of swaggering buffoonery quite like Eastbound & Down star McBride, and despite the fact that the relationship between Dwayne and Travis is dysfunctional bordering on emotionally abusive, there remains an endearing balance between the characters that effectively mirrors that of Nick and Chet. And though Eisenberg has received the lion's share of critical acclaim lately thanks to his role in David Fincher's The Social Network, Ansari is the standout here. Not only because his character gets some of the screenplay's best jokes, but mainly due to the effortless efficiency with which he handles them. However, it may be the versatile Peña who runs away with the movie. His performance as the pimp summoned from Detroit to Grand Rapids for a dirty job is genuinely inspired -- especially in the scene where he struggles to remain "in character" after taking a bullet -- and he wears his gaudy neck tattoo with the conviction of a true gangsta.
Whether or not the concept of 30 Minutes or Less transcends the perceived boundaries of good taste is a decision best left to the individual viewer. For those who choose to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, though, this fast-paced heist comedy strikes a satisfying balance between laughs and thrills while delivering enough unexpected surprises to make it worthwhile.