The upcoming 30 Minutes or Less has a premise that's pretty wacky on first glance — a pizza delivery boy is sent out to a remote location to deliver a pie, where two maniacs strap a bomb to his chest. If he doesn't rob a bank and bring them the loot in time, he'll explode. Pretty outlandish, right?
Well, not really. It's based on actual events in which pretty much that exact thing happened to pizza delivery man Brian Wells. But at the end of this story, the bomb actually exploded. Not very funny.
In light of this morning's news that a bomb squad in Australia was called in to defuse and remove a highly sophisticated collar bomb that was attached to a teenage girl, it makes you wonder: are we far enough away from these horrifying events to be laughing about them? And is it OK to base comedies off of specific events of this nature? This Australia news is very bad timing for 30 Minutes or Less, but I still can't help but be a little unsettled by the actual story the movie is based on, which happened in 2003.
Wired ran a long, in-depth story on the Brian Wells case late last year, and it's well worth reading. Here's how it opens:
At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash — $8,702 — and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.
Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.
“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement. It was 3:18 pm. The bomb squad arrived three minutes later.
Not exactly hilarious.
Obviously, we can expect the storyline of 30 Minutes or Less to use this story as a launching point, and not follow it all that faithfully. I certainly don't expect to see Jesse Eisenberg killed by a homemade bomb at the end. But it does raise the question: are there some stories that are too upsetting or dark to act as foundations for comedy?
There have certainly been some seriously dark comedies that were highly successful, most recently with Chris Morris's Four Lions. That movie isn't based on specific events, but it is about terrorism, and it includes some very realistic and upsetting scenes of innocent people being killed. I really liked the movie, and thought that its handling of sensitive and controversial subject matter was spot-on. Morris used the emotional weight of scenes of terrorism to redefine how we view "terrorists" as people and as characters. The movie was hilarious, but it also leaves the audience questioning the media-made image of evil mastermind terrorists, hiding in caves and plotting nefariously.
The difference between Four Lions and 30 Minutes or Less is pretty clear. 30 Minutes or Less is based on a specific event, not on the idea of terrorism in general. It also doesn't appear to be aiming to make any statements about its subject matter, instead using the unique scenario as a launching-off point for a wacky action comedy.
Of course, I haven't seen 30 Minutes or Less yet. I can't pass judgement on it. But I worry that I'll be unable to get the real story out of my mind while watching it, and it's tough to laugh at a funny movie when you're thinking about a serious tragedy.