Thursday, April 23, 2009

Marley & Me

Director: David Frankel
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin, Eric Dane, Kathleen Turner
Running Time: 115 min.

Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★)


Consider yourself warned. The last 45 minutes of Marley & Me are excruciating to sit through, particularly if you've ever owned a dog at any point during your life. If you're like me and haven't, then the last 45 minutes are still excruciating to sit through. It's been promoted as a warm and fuzzy family comedy (which it mostly is) but boy is it sad. You could also call it shameless, manipulative fluff but doing that would completely miss the point. The film has only one goal: Show how dogs can positively impact and sometimes even change our lives. So, to that end, it's an unqualified success.

Whenever someone shows me a photo of their dog it always amazes me how their face lights up as they tell stories about the canine as if it were their own child. Since I've never had one I'll never fully understand that feeling, but I imagine this movie does a pretty good job capturing it. The emotions it explores are very real and it's a safe bet anyone with a beating heart will be moved by this story. There is one charming lead human performance (as well as a really bland one) but nothing else in the picture matters except the dog. And that's how it should be. They really are man's best friend and this movie is a great reminder why.

Based on the beloved, best-selling memoir by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan, the film explores what happens when John (Owen Wilson) gives wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) a puppy for her birthday upon their arrival at their new home in South Florida. They name "Marley." Yes, after Bob Marley. Both are hired by competing newspapers as reporters, but at the behest of his editor (Alan Arkin, cranky as always) John takes on a new role as a humor columnist, poking fun at everyday life. Marley turns out to be the dog from hell, a disobedient terror who chews on furniture, eats answering machines and is impossible to control, making great fodder for the column but putting loads of stress on their marriage. When John and Jenny decide to have children the dog becomes an important part of their lives too as the film spans 14 years, even if I'm not entirely sure what that converts to in dog years.

Owen Wilson's laid back, down-to-Earth performance grounds everything, reminding us just how likable he is in the right role. He even kind of even reminds you of a shaggy dog with his appearance which could help explain why he seems right at home opposite the 22 dogs that played Marley. It isn't easy sharing screen time with animals but he makes it look effortless and he shares many surprisingly moving scenes with Marley in the final act. Besides carrying the entire load of the picture he also shares as decent chemistry as is possible with Aniston, who's as bland as ever. Whereas Wilson was hired for what he'd bring to the role, Aniston was only cast because they thought a "big name" would put audiences in seats, which is ironic considering she's never drawn at all at the box office nor given a single performance suggesting she should be known for anything other than posing nude on a magazine cover to promote a family film.

What's funniest is when this opened against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Christmas weekend the media hyped it as the latest "battle" between Brad and Jennifer. Too bad they forgot to take into account that Pitt was starring in an epic period film spanning decades where he had to play a character at different ages and act against heavy make-up and visual effects. Aniston is playing a housewife in a dog movie... and not even particularly well. While not actively terrible, she adds nothing to the role and just about any other random actress could have done more with it. Her "star" presence is more of a distraction and she was obviously cast as some kind of olive branch to wronged housewives everywhere who studio executives thought could be the target audience for the picture. Worse yet, the character is a nag who hates the dog and complains about everything. The script blames it on postpartum depression but Aniston just goes all out and practically plays her as a complete bitch. I was waiting for the guy to leave her for Angelina.

Kathleen Turner has a brief cameo as a dog trainer while Grey's Anatomy's Eric Dane is John's best friend Sebastian. He's competent in a part that requires absolutely nothing. He's not necessarily believable as a highly successful reporter (if there is such a thing anymore) but after seeing Kate Bosworth as a Pulitzer Prize winner in Superman Returns I'm willing to buy just about anything. It makes you long for the days where the title of "reporter" or "journalist" commanded respect and a high paying salary, even if I'd question whether it was ever high paying enough for John and his wife to afford that house they live in. But this is still supposed to be a romantic comedy so we'll let that one slide.

What happens in the last hour has to be one of the worst kept movie secrets of 2008. It seemed as if every time I turned on the television or read a review a critic would state it was so sad and they cried their eyes out but they just "can't reveal what happens." Gee, I wonder. Didn't they just do exactly that? Well, I'll be upfront with you, extend the courtesy of a BIG SPOILER and flat-out out tell you that the dog passes away. And he doesn't just pass away, he passes away slowly and agonizingly for nearly an hour straight. But as painful as that is to watch I don't think the film would have been as effective without it. It's the last leg of this dog's journey and even though the sentiment and schmaltz is poured on as thick as maple syrup by director David Frankel, it's well earned and mostly kept in check.

Marley may be the "world's worst dog" but they come to accept him as that and eventually learn to appreciate him, faults and all. It sounds corny when I say it but the surprisingly sharp script from veteran screen scribes Scott Frank and Don Roos mostly avoid cliches to make the story as much about the trials of marriage and parenthood as the dog. Despite my problems with Aniston's non-performance I will say John and Jenny's relationship feels genuine and not like it's out of a bad sitcom. The film isn't laugh out loud funny but it's filled with many real life moments dog owners and parents will probably giggle at. There's a lot to relate to here, whether you've had kids, a pet, or even neither. If you love dogs you'll love Marley & Me. If you don't love dogs, you will when it's over. And no I wasn't crying. Something just got in my eye.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Director: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Running Time: 104 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As a kid, I remember the public library in town always stocked movies, some classics, that appealed primarily to the "older" crowd. Doubt wouldn't be that out of place among them. It's dry Oscar bait that at times feels more like a homework assignment than a fully realized cinematic experience. Even the title is somewhat of a misnomer. It could very easily be changed to Here Say, Rumor or Gossip. We start in a position of knowing nothing and finish in a position of knowing...nothing. Not a deal killer by any means, but when there isn't anything other than the performances to support that, it can become an issue.

In interviews writer/director John Patrick Shanley has stated that the movie really begins after the final credits roll at which point you can discuss and debate. Discuss what? I hope he's not referring to whether this priest molested a student because there's no indication at all that he did. We're given no evidence, nothing to go on, so the film essentially becomes one giant true or false question. Here's a sample of a discussion I had with someone after the film:

Him: "So, think he did it?"

Me: "No."

That's about the extent of it. Since the film doesn't present any evidence or a compelling argument in either direction something is lost and the performances have to make up for it, which they handily do. The story becomes about feelings and motivations rather than guilt or innocence. There isn't much to weigh here. Still, it's worth contrasting this with Ron Howard's far superior Frost/Nixon, this past year's other big Oscar-ready stage adaptation. There, Howard opened opened up the story visually and used an effective narrative framing device that added tension and history. It felt like an epic showdown and a prize fight between two heavyweights. Shanley seems to have just grabbed a camera and shot the Tony Award winning play, which just so happens to be his own.

In way Doubt reminds me more of Rachel Getting Married or The Wrestler, in that it's primarily a performance showcase except for the fact those two films dug deeper and transcended that, giving you substantially more to think about when they ended. This is a solid, if slightly transparent effort completely supported by the caliber of the acting, which is downright brilliant across the board. For that it has more in common with Milk, though it doesn't carry nearly the same level of expectation and subsequent disappointment. At least here you get to make up your own mind, even if there isn't a whole lot to consider.

It's the fall of 1964 at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx where the principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) rules with an iron fist, treating misbehaving students like inmates in a penitentary and inspiring fear everywhere she goes. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) operates in stark contrast, taking a friendlier approach to the kids and acting as an encouraging mentor. Nearly two years after the assassination of President Kennedy the world is changing, kids are changing and Flynn believes Aloysius' method of discipline is becoming irrelevant.

Caught in the middle of their philosophical struggle is the young, naive Sister James (Amy Adams) who has reason (albeit very little) to suspect Flynn may be carrying on an "inappropriate relationship" with Donald Muller (Joseph Foster) the only African-American student in the school. She takes her suspicions to Aloysius who despite having no evidence, stills pursues the issue, even involving the boy's mother (Viola Davis). Aloysius will stop at nothing in her quest to wrangle a confession out of Flynn and prevent him from teaching at her school ever again, making us wonder whether she really is out to protect the welfare of these children or is more interested in settling a personal vendetta.

The worst way to approach this film is as a moral mystery. What it is instead is a clash of values and cultures brought about by allegations that don't carry much wait outside of Aloysius' belief in her heart that they're true. And her belief could be clouded by a pre-conceived bias and intolerance toward the man accused of the crime. Or maybe it isn't. That notion is even scarier. There's the possibility that this mild-mannered teacher who by outward appearances seems to be a great mentoring figure to kids could have actually done this. Who among us hasn't ever just gone on a gut feeling and nothing more? The performances rather than Shanley's script, give the dilemma nuance and depth. With less talented actors you could easily envision this coming across as three talking heads debating a non-existent issue.

Streep and Hoffman draw you in with their lived in portrayals of two people with greatly differing views of intolerance, which is what the script purports to be about. Her Sister Aloysius starts the film as an ice cold disciplinarian and she ends the film as that as well so Streep instead makes our view of her evolve. We still dislike her by the final credits, but at least we can understand where she's coming from even though her guard never really comes down. She's set in her ways and grasping as hard as she can to what she believes is best for her students, ignorant to the fact that times have changed and left her behind. That's never clearer than in the sensational, some what bizarre scene Streep shares with Viola Davis, who plays the boy's mother.

Davis joins the company of Judi Dench, William Hurt and Ruby Dee in earning an Oscar nomination for only a precious few minutes worth of screen time. It's well deserved and in a way her character speaks for audience in wondering whether Aloysius has thought through what these allegations could do not to Flynn, but the boy. Mrs. Muller just wants to get her son through the school year in one piece and the absolutely horrifying idea is thrown out there that being molested may not even be his worst problem in life.

There's a whole world out there that Aloysius hasn't even considered or maybe just can't. Davis' character throws that in her face and the result is the only scene in the film that will have you talking afterward. It's a stretch and a complicated part to pull off believably (especially in so short a time span) but Davis does, holding her own with an acting legend in the process. Hoffman gives a benevolent vibe to Flynn that makes you want to root for him, but something seems off. A cloud of suspicion hangs over him, enough for you to consider that he could have done this despite the lack of proof. Amy Adams plays the quiet wallflower but effectively takes the character to the next level as the situation unfolds, even as her cheery, optimistic demeanor wears on you after a while

I was surprised to read in the credits that the film was shot by the great Roger Deakins and scored by composer Howard Shore because this has to rank among the least memorable offerings for both. I can't recall a shot that stayed with me or whether there was even any music at all. This is a performance piece and a front row ticket to watch some of our most talented actors verbally spar with one another. The film will likely hit hardest for those who attended Catholic school in their youth. Everyone I've talked to who has told me that they knew a Sister Aloysius, a Sister James, or a Father Flynn, if not all three. It was the real Sister James who inspired Shanley to write the play and its her objective but optimistic stance audiences will relate to best.

I admired the film but would never see it again. Nor would I feel compelled to discuss it since we know no more at the end than the beginning. Not even a little more. While it's is a superbly acted and at least somewhat emotionally involving picture I can't help but think that it helps explain why many dread Oscar season. Impressively crafted, but draining, Doubt is worthy of a couple of acting nominations, a hearty golf clap, and little else.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Yes Man

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Darby, Molly Sims
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: PG-13

★ 1/2 (out of ★)

Yes Man
takes a potentially entertaining premise and dumbs it down, opting to tell the same bad joke over and over again hoping it'll eventually get laughs. Because there's actually some real truth in the concept the attempts at juvenile slapstick humor fall flat and Jim Carrey's zany performance feels like it's out of another film. If he's trying to cleanse himself of The Number 23 by retreating back into his comic safe zone he's trying too hard. Worse yet, the movie's trying too hard along with him.

The biggest shame is that this could have really been something if the filmmakers had trusted the premise and kept everything reasonably grounded. The best moments are subdued ones where Carrey isn't in Ace Ventura mode. Unfortunately those are few and far between and then the whole thing really falls apart at the end when the screenplay buckles, revealing itself to be lacking in either originality or ambition. But there is one truly great aspect that almost makes all of this bearable. And you know what (or rather who) it is. Do I even need say it? She's the only reason you should see this.

You're already familiar with the plot. Just take Liar, Liar and replace "telling the truth" with saying "yes." Carrey is bank employee Carl Allen, a depressed loner still recovering from his divorce from ex-wife Stephanie (Molly Sims) and who's most eventful activity of the week is renting a movie. All that changes when an old friend (John Michael Higgins) convinces him to attend a self-help seminar hosted by motivational guru Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp, collecting a paycheck) dedicated to the power of saying "yes."

Carl promises to stop being a "no" man and say "yes" to every opportunity that comes his way, including giving a ride and all of his money to a homeless person. Stranded without gas and a dead cell battery he encounters the free-spirited, scooter-driving Allison (Zooey Deschanel). Attracted to her quirkiness, he begins to embrace life and realize that saying "yes" opens up a whole new world to him as he learns Korean and the guitar, takes flying lessons, and even gets a Persian wife from the internet.

There is one major distinction between this and Liar, Liar. Here the protagonist CHOOSES to take the challenge on by choice rather than having some silly, supernatural spell put over him where he loses control. That should have kept the film more realistically grounded and opened the floodgates for a more meaningful story. It was a wise decision, but the screenplay and Carrey are unable to capitalize on it, using the opportunity to instead revel in low-brow humor. But the biggest problem is that Carrey has difficulty playing a normal, functioning human being we can relate to.

He plays Carl not just as someone whose biggest problem is saying "no," but as an escapee from a mental institution with manic tendencies. Just watch him in a scene at a bar where he's supposed to be drunk. He looks like Jim Carrey imitating a drunk person rather than someone who actually is. Too often he overplays everything when a more grounded performance would have served the film much better. The only time Carrey was ever fully restrained was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it resulted in his greatest performance. That's not a coincidence. In his defense, the screenplay doesn't help. A sight gag involving the sexual advances of an old lady is disgusting and unfunny, using what should be a "can't miss" premise in the most brain dead way possible. Just the fact that the film thinks that being a male nurse is hysterical should give an idea of the level of humor we're dealing with here.

The movie works in the smaller, less showy moments, usually anything involving Carl's bank manager Norman (a very funny Rhys Darby) whose impressed with his new found motivation at work and also has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Harry Potter films. But it works best when focusing on his developing relationship with Allison. For this, Zooey once again reprises her role as pretty much the most awesome girlfriend on the planet, and as you could have probably guessed, she ups the ante on quirk once again. Just how quirky is Allison? She teaches a Yoga photography class, sings in maybe the most brilliantly named band in movie history and her scooter helmet has... GOOGLY EYES!

I hate continuously using the word "quirky" in every review to describe Zooey but it's true. And it's a compliment. It's funny how if any other actress had continued to play variations on the same role over and over again I'd rip them for it, but when she does it I cheer. Allison's offbeat characteristics would be irritating in the hands of another actress but in hers they're adorable. By now in her career we should feel as if we've been beaten to death by a quirky stick but I don't care. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. She can continue to beat me with with it as much as she wants.

A big fuss was made over the nearly twenty-year age gap between Carrey and Zooey and while Carrey's age is an issue, it doesn't cause the kind of distraction you'd expect. They do have chemistry, though it's not exactly the romantic kind. Where Carrey's age becomes a hinderance is in the situation. This feels like the kind of crisis a twenty-something would be having, not a middle-aged man. You sense the script was intended to revolve around someone much younger, then revised when Carrey came on board. That's especially apparent when you see Carl hanging out with his best friend (played by Bradley Cooper) who appears to be in an entirely different stage of his life. Carrey's a forty-something who's playing someone who's supposed to be a thirty-something in a story that feels like it should be revolving around a twenty-something. It's enough to confuse Benjamin Button.

As sexist as it may make me sound there is a small part of me (growing exponentially with each passing year) that wants to celebrate the fact that no matter how old a guy gets Hollywood will always have his back and cast a young, hot chick opposite him. Wrong to say, but honest. Plus, you figure it takes guys longer to get their acts together anyway before they're ready to settle down so it's reassuring to know that movies are preaching that we have as much time as we want! Whew, what a relief. You do fall for a person not an age, but we all know that's not why Hollywood casts older men opposite women young enough to be their daughters.

Thankfully though, Carrey and Zooey are likable and capable enough that they sell it and the pairing isn't creepy at all. The scenes they share together are the film's best and it's during them when the story really feels like it's clicking. So of course the idiot screenwriters had to to manufacture the requisite "fake crisis" to split them apart that's become a hallmark of all third acts in romantic comedies. And this one ranks among the most forced and unnatural I've seen. It's just lazy writing. Who made the rule that in all rom-coms the two leads have to get into a contrived, unrealistic fight before realizing that they love each other? This deserved better.

The film is based on British author Danny Wallace's supposedly much smarter 2005 memoir in which he really did challenge himself for 6 months to say "yes" to everything. I'd believe it's smarter. There's a great story in here struggling to get out. Not just a good one, but a great one. I wanted to love this film so badly because the premise is bursting with creative potential. I'm also tempted to recommend it just for Zooey but that would be doing a disservice. There are just too many problems with it. The saddest part is I'd watch this again before some of the nominated films of the past year. Yes Man may be a misfire, but at least it's a somewhat likable one.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quantum of Solace

Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kuryenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Quantum of Solace, the 22nd entry in the 007 franchise and the first direct sequel of the series officially marks the arrival of a leaner, meaner James Bond film. Trimming the excess story fat and winking tone of previous installments and clocking in at a mere 106 minutes, it's a rather obvious attempt to (d)evolve the franchise into a Bourne-style thrill ride. Not a bad idea in theory, but the results are wildly mixed with a few flashes of greatness here and there, especially when it comes to the action. I wouldn't be so quick to flat-out dismiss the film as a disappointment, but that's only because it's impossible for me to be "disappointed" by a Bond film. I'm just not really a fan of the franchise to begin with. So that even I felt somewhat let down by this can't be a good sign.

It's no easy task to follow-up 2006's Casino Royale, one of the stronger (arguably the strongest) entry in the entire series. It had something for everyone and even those who aren't fans could lose themselves in the story and appreciate it. In Solace, director Marc Forster (taking over for Martin Campbell) adapts competently to the material but this movie is for the diehards and that's it. No one else will enjoy it because the story is just basically a retread of any other-by-the-numbers action flick thus making its enjoyment entirely dependent on the audience's relationship with the hero. I appreciated the effort to tighten things up but the major drawback is that the film felt like a series of exciting action scenes strung together and by the end I didn't care about the story, or most importantly, any of its characters. As far as Bond films go, it's well-made but forgettable.

Picking up only minutes after the events in Casino Royale conclude as Bond (Daniel Craig) is out for revenge after being betrayed by Vesper Lynd. After an exhausting car chase he zeroes in on the shadowy Quantum group who have "people everywhere," one of which is businessman Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Under a creepy guise of eco-friendliness, he's cozying up to exiled General Madrano (Joaquin Cosio) in order to take control of Bolivia's water supply. To stop them Bond hooks up with the exotic and dangerous Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a Russian-Bolivian agent who has her own axe to grind with the General.

Usually I really look forward to the opening credits of a Bond film but this is the first instance I can remember where I had to cover my ears and couldn't wait for it to end. The idea of teaming Jack White with Alicia Keys to record to record the newest Bond theme ("Another Way To Die") must have looked very enticing on paper but the result is so muddled you'll actually want to consider giving Madonna a call again. Anything would have paled next to Cornell's song for Casino Royale but this reeks of a stunt rather than an honest attempt to create a piece of music that reflects the tone of the film, whatever that even is. Always a welcome presence (especially in this installment) Judi Dench returns as M and seems more pissed off at Bond than ever, which adds some welcome tension. Jeffrey Wright is back as Felix Leiter but has significantly less to do this time around which is almost a given considering how short the film is.

Many unfair criticisms have been leveled against model-turned-actress Olga Kurylenko, but she oozes sexiness and danger and handles herself like a pro opposite Craig. The real problem has less to do with her performance than how the character is written. Since the Brosnan films it seems there's been more of an effort to have the Bond girl become more physically involved than she did in the Connery and Moore eras. This was originally a welcome change but now its reach a point here where the Bond girl is starting to become almost TOO INVOLVED. They could be considered a glorified sidekick, kind of like Shia LeBouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That helps make this feel more like your typical popcorn movie than a Bond film.

Eva Green's Vesper was Bond's equal in every way and her performance reflected that. We cared about her and her betrayal and subsequent death in Casino Royale hit the audience as hard as it hit him. Kurylenko isn't given anything to work with except a weak backstory cribbed from just about any other action flick. In her brief moment of screen time, Gemma Arterton's "Strawberry Fields" feels more like our textbook definition of the quintessential Bond girl and I found myself wishing she was in the movie more. Mathieu Amalric (best known for his brilliant work as a paraplegic in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) wisely avoids hammy cliches as the baddie but he's kind of a bore. You won't care about him or his plan and he seems rather conventional for a Bond villain. This reflects a larger issue within the entire film in that there's a lot going on, but not much incentive to see how it turns out.

After the success of Casino Royale it was almost inevitable that the Bond film settle back into a groove of sorts and generally the franchise is going in the right direction, with no need for drastic changes. I've actually heard some suggest that after this film's underwhelming performance Craig should be replaced as Bond. That's absurd. If anything, he's the reason why this installment even comes remotely close to working. He's by far the best choice of actor available right now who can project the necessary amount of confidence, suaveness and danger that are prerequisites to playing 007. Get rid of him and this franchise is dead in the water.

What surprised me most about Quantum of Solace was my attitude going in. I actually wasn't dreading it, which could indicate my stance on the series and character is softening. Casino Royale likely played a big role in that and after watching this I'm starting to wonder whether that film was slightly better than I originally gave it credit for. This isn't in that league at all but far from the disaster it's been made out to be. It even almost comes together in the third act, with a highlight being a clever body art tribute to Goldfinger. The title isn't the problem nor are Forster's shaky cam shenanigans. It all comes down to the story and in that regard Quantum of Solace doesn't give us anything different or special that sets it apart from not just the other Bond entries, but any other empty Hollywood action spectacle.

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.