Role Models

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/07/08 00:00:00

"I Never Mentor Hurt You"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Role Models” is a film that is crude, rude, vulgar, occasionally tasteless and about as sophisticated as a whoopee cushion at a funeral. It is essentially a laundry list of gags linked together by a storyline that runs the gamut of narrative complexity from A-to-Boobies, it crashes to a halt with all the gracefulness of a car wreck and its lack of visual sophistication is enough to make Kevin Smith look like Ernst Lubitsch by comparison. And yet, none of these things really matter because this is the kind of film that has only one thing on its mind--to make audiences laugh uproariously by any mean necessary--and in that regards, it works quite well indeed.

The film tells the story of two reps for an energy drink company whose job it is to drive around to high schools and push their over-caffeinated chemical-laden swill on unsuspecting students under the guise of a say-no-to-drugs program. Of the two, the arrested adolescent Wheeler (Seann William Scott) loves the gig--he gets to hop around in a minotaur costume all day while chugging energy drinks and can devote the rest of his considerable free time chasing skirts. Danny (Paul Rudd), on the other hand, hates his job and his life and his grand funk only increases when he realizes that he has been working at the same company for 10 years and has nothing to show for it. This bad mood serves as the catalyst for a very bad day that starts with Danny belittling a Starbucks barista for their refusal to simply call a large coffee a “large coffee,” continues with him getting dumped by longtime girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, continuing in her quest to appear in every single movie coming out this fall) and climaxes with he and Wheeler getting involved in an argument with a tow-truck driver over the company 4X4 that ends with them both facing a litany of criminal charges.

Thanks to Beth’s legal maneuverings, the two are able to avoid jail and are instead sentenced to perform 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, a pseudo-Big Brother mentoring program for young kids that is run by Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch), an overly enthusiastic woman with a past that seems to have involved most of the major twelve-step groups and probably a good number of the minor ones as well. Danny’s charge is Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a teenage doofus who has been sent into the program by his parents (Ken Marino and Kerry Kenney-Silver) in the hopes that it will break him of his fascination with a live-action medieval fantasy game that is his greatest passion. Wheeler, on the other hand, gets Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), an incorrigible and fatherless 10-year-old boy with a malevolent streak and a filthy mouth. Naturally, neither of the two are particular happy with the situation but since it seems slightly better than the prospect of jail, they dig in and before long, Danny and Wheeler unexpectedly begin to make actual breakthroughs with the kids--Wheeler and Ronnie bond over their shared fascination of the female form and the music of KISS (“I didn’t know Jews sang like that!”)--but just when everything seems to be going swell, they each screw up in ways that disappoint the kids and leave them kicked out of the group and facing jail time. Of course, this is the necessary low moment that a film of this type requires before the celebration of the final reel in which the guys redeem themselves at last, the kids are allowed to triumph over their adversities and one of the main running jokes is allowed to have a beautiful, if inevitable, payoff.

“Role Models” was directed by David Wain, whose previous efforts were the brilliant summer camp comedy spoof “Wet Hot American Summer” and “The Ten,” a flawed-but-interesting satirical examination of the Ten Commandments. Both of these films were smart and ambitious and, perhaps because they were smart and ambitious, both of them tanked at the box-office. Now at the reins of his first studio offering, Wain has clearly chosen to put his ambitiousness to the side in order to make something that is cheerfully and shamelessly aiming for a mainstream audience that prefers its humor broad and brash instead of clever. As a fan of Wain’s previous film work, not to mention his contributions to the absurdist sketch comedy favorites “The State” and “Stella,” watching him take a more formulaic approach here was a bit disconcerting at first--from a stylistic standpoint, it could have been made by anyone, which is not something that could be easily said about his previous efforts. And yet, despite its relentless crudity, aesthetic and otherwise, of his approach here, “Role Models” turns out to be a pretty entertaining film nevertheless. For one thing, while the jokes may not be especially sophisticated--many of them are dependent on the concept that vulgarity is somehow funnier when it either comes from the mouths of young children or is deployed within their proximity--a lot of them are really funny, especially the strange little one-liners and observations that slip in from out of nowhere and pretty much blindside you. I’m not going to quote any of them here--partly because I don’t want to give away the jokes and partly because they are the kind of laughs that don’t work nearly as well when seen in print out of context.

Of course, a lot of the success of these moments is due to the skills of those deploying those lines. Rudd, who co-wrote the screenplay, has becoming an increasingly valuable comic star thanks to his scene-stealing performances in films ranging from the heights of “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to the depths of “Reno 911” and “Over Her Dead Body” and he pretty much knocks every one of his lines out of the park with his drier-than-dry delivery, especially in the scenes when he is fully consumed by his sense of world-weary cynicism. Scott, who shot to prominence as the randy Stifler in the “American Pie” films and who has largely been playing slight variations of that character ever since (although he acquitted himself quite well in a more serious role in the terribly underrated “Southland Tales”), also scores quite well here--his character’s one-on-one moments with his charge inspire a lot of big laughs. And as the leader of Sturdy Wings who is compelled to drop hints about her unsavory past to whomever she meets, whether they want to know or not, Jane Lynch pretty much steals every single scene she is in--after seeing her here, most people will find themselves hoping that someone like Christopher Guest or Judd Apatow (both of whom she has frequently collaborated with in the past) will take the hint and create a project with her at the center.

“Role Models” is a fairly ramshackle film and as a result, it does have a few key flaws here and there--Elizabeth Banks, whose keen comedic chops are currently on display in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” is unfortunately stuck playing the one unfunny character and never gets a chance to cut loose on her own, the fantasy game-set finale goes on way too long for its own good and it lacks that final burst of comic inspiration that might have made it the contemporary equivalent of such thematically similar comedy classics as “Stripes” or “Back to School.” That said, it takes a one-joke premise that might have suffered quite badly in the wrong hands and pulls it off thanks to a combination of a lot of inspired individual bits and a cast of actors who deliver them in such a way that you are laughing too hard to notice or care about its other shortcomings.

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