Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Role Models

Director: David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Elizabth Banks, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Jane Lynch

Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Familiarity can breed contempt and it seems every other week a new R rated comedy comes out that features the usual Judd Apatow players, or if they're not, they feel like they are. But something hit me while watching David Wain's Role Models. Apatow's name isn't anywhere on it as either producer, writer or director yet I'm still mentioning him in this review. Sure, a couple of actors who have appeared in his films are featured here but he was in no way creatively involved with this picture. Still, it's impossible to watch this and not think how closely it resembles much of his output.

As much as I complain that Apatow doesn't always get it right (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), a lot of the time he does (The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Superbad, Pineapple Express) and despite my occasional misgivings toward this brand of comedy, no other recent filmmaker has made as positive an impact on film. Because of him actors and actresses who would be unthinkable as leads just a few years ago are now headlining major releases and the face of comedy has completely changed. It's smarter and everyone else has been forced to step up their game. Spielberg is an influential producer and director but have his projects transformed an entire genre and actually MADE stars? Have other writers and directors tried to imitate him? Are his fingerprints on movies he had nothing to do with? Wain was around way before Apatow starting on MTV's The State and moving on to direct one of the most underrated comedies of the past decade in Wet Hot American Summer. He knows what he's doing anyway but there's no denying this new style of comedy has influenced his latest, and in a mostly good way.

Energy drink salesmen Wheeler (Seann William Scott) and Danny (Paul Rudd) travel from school to school hawking their Minotaur beverage and urging kids to stay off drugs (isn't caffeine a drug?) While Wheeler loves his job and is essentially a big kid, Danny is cold and morose wondering how his life got so off track as he passes 30. After his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) can't stand it anymore and dumps him, he and Wheeler find themselves sentenced to 150 hours of community service after causing property damage at a school. The charity they're sent to is "Sturdy Wings," a big brother like program led by recovering drug addict Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch) whose behavior and methods in overseeing the program are bizarre to say the least. We find out about her troubled history through a hysterical flashback video that may be the highlight of the entire film.

The guys are assigned to a kid each with Wheeler stuck with Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a foul-mouthed 10-year-old obsessed with breasts. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Danny is assigned nerdy teen outcast Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who's obsessed and way too involved with a live-action Medieval role playing game called LAIRE (Live Action Interactive Role-playing Experience). Unless Danny and Wheeler provide sufficient guidance to these kids and carry out all their tasks within the allotted time, Gayle will call the judge and have them thrown in the slammer, an option that's beginning to look better to them by the second.

Predictably, after a rough early going, Danny and Wheeler start to bond with the kids and find a common ground on which they can connect. The story's obvious from the first frame but that's not why you watch a movie like this. You watch to laugh and there are plenty of laughs here thanks to some scene-stealing performances and Wain's affectionate depiction of a role playing universe we don't often see explored in comedies. It would have been so easy (almost too easy) for Wain to take cheap shots at this hobby that is supposedly popular among geeky circles but rather than laugh AT the people involved in it Wain lets us laugh WITH the characters and appreciate their dedication to it. I was surprised how involved and excited I was during the final fight and found it interesting how all the role-players are on the same page with their honor system. But the largest reason Augie's role-playing sub-plot works is Mintz-Plasse.

Like in Superbad, Plasse is playing a nerd but you'll be surprised just how differently he does it this time. That character was confident in his non-conformity while Augie is kind of hurting and struggling to fit in. It's a small touch, but Plasse plays it just right. This isn't just a rehash of McLuvin' as the trailers and commercials indicated. Kerri Kenney-Silver and Ken Marino also manage to get some good jabs in as Augie's unlikable mom and boyfriend, particularly during a memorable dinner scene with Rudd's character. Plasse's junior co-star Bobb'e J. Thompson is basically playing a 10-year-old Chris Rock, cursing up a storm and having a blast doing it. It's hilarious at first but after a while it started to wear on me.

Though its through no fault of his own Seann William Scott is saddled playing an older version of Stifler in that there isn't much depth to that character beyond his emotional immaturity. But he does have a great scene where he offers up the most logical defense of KISS's music possible. Rudd, who seems to be the go-to leading man in comedies these days, succeeds in making Danny a depressed jerk, but invests him with enough innate likability and charisma that we still really want to root for the guy.

The always lovely Banks is given one of her least memorable roles to date as the thankless love interest, but given the nature of this script I'm not sure much more could have been done with the part, or that it needed to be. What all the performances have in common is that they pale in comparison to the work of Jane Lynch, who steals the entire movie with her zany portrayal of program founder Gayle. The things that come out of her mouth are completely insane but Lynch finds a way to somehow ground it in reality enough that she's a believable counselor also, which just make her antics even funnier. Just as strong is Ken Jeong as Augie's role-playing arch-nemesis King Argotron, who plays his part so hilariously straight you'd think he wandered off the set of Braveheart.

It's a relief knowing that comedies have gotten a lot smarter lately and the amount of unfunny ones being released in a given year are lower than ever. The Apatowian R-Rated comedy with a message is just about the safest studio bet left and there are many audiences out there who will only take a trip to the theater to see this kind of film. Having said that, I'm not sure how long it'll be before I start to tire of them. We're not there yet, but I can easily see it happening. The same actors are starring in the same types of movies with only slight variations on similar themes and you have to wonder how long it'll be before they run out of gas. Luckily, Wain's script and the performances come through to make Role Models more entertaining than most.

1 comment:

thebonebreaker said...

Another great review Jeremy - what separates this film was the whole live-action role playing aspect of it - I loved it! ;-)