Director/cowriter David Wain’s last two films, The Ten (2007) and Wet Hot American Summer (2001), failed to catch fire at the box office (neither film even played locally). But his new film, Role Models, has made a respectable second-place showing at the theaters this past weekend. (The moral to this may be that it’s just not wise to go up against talking penguins—a consideration that most people never considered considering.) It’s a bit of validation that Wain and his film deserve. Role Models isn’t a great picture. No one is likely to be hailing it “an instant comedy classic,” and they oughtn’t be. But it is a consistently pleasant, often funny, sometimes clever, occasionally even touching little movie that does what it sets out to do.
Yes, Role Models attempts to be a comedy in the Judd Apatow tradition (I believe its star Seann William Scott—the fellow with the three first names, the order of which I never can remember—has said as much), but I can’t hold that against the film. Indeed, I found it less obnoxious, less padded, less in love with emotional retardation, and more straightforwardly funny than most Apatow productions. It operates on a similar principle to the Apatow approach—blending raunchy humor and nudity with a feel-good story—but it feels less calculated. More importantly, it didn’t leave the bad aftertaste that a lot of the Apatow product does—at least so far as I’m concerned.
The story is pure formula stuff and offers little in the way of surprises. If you can’t outline the basic trajectory of the story after the first 20 minutes, there’s something amiss with your moviegoing knowledge. Seann William Scott and Paul Rudd star as Wheeler and Danny, two guys with a fairly dreadful, but presumably lucrative enough job shilling for an energy drink called Minotaur. To this end, they drive around in a tarted-up Minotaur truck and visit schools offering an antidrug lecture that requires Wheeler to dress up in an apparently smelly Minotaur suit, while Danny delivers the pitch that drugs are bad and Minotaur drinks are good. Wheeler is happy with this; Danny isn’t. But then, Danny is in a perpetually bad mood—one that causes his girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), to move out, which in turn causes Danny to lose it at one school, resulting in property damage and arrest.
Since Beth is a lawyer, she manages to get them 150 hours of community service with a program called Sturdy Wings, a kind of Big Brothers mentoring affair headed up by a salty-tongued ex-drug addict and ex-anything-unwholesome-you-care-to-name woman by the name of Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch, The Rocker). She would just as soon the duo went to jail as not, sensing that they have zero interest in helping anyone other than themselves. To this end, they’re assigned impossible cases. Danny gets Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad), a guy whose geek cred is everything his name suggests. He’s into live-action role-playing games as an antidote to his miserable real life, but the LARP world isn’t that much kinder to him. Wheeler gets a surly, foul-mouthed 10-year-old black kid, Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, Idlewild), who is obsessed with “boobies” and operates under the belief that all white guys are interchangeable with Ben Affleck.
You know what follows: antagonism, disaster, bonding, a screwup and a last reel solution. There are no mysteries here, but there’s some solid comedy writing and pretty effective playing. The characters—in a very movie way—become likable as things progress, but the film is smart enough that they never quite lose their edge (the rationale for why Sweeny can get the judge to do whatever she wants is pretty priceless). The screenplay isn’t afraid to be odd and even esoteric. There’s a great joke about how Augie looks like Marvin Hamlisch (and he does, though it hadn’t occurred to me) that had most of the audience with whom I saw it echoing Augie’s own, “Who the f**k is Marvin Hamlisch?” Great stuff? No, not really. But it’s entertaining and funnier than most things that show up claiming to be comedies these days. Rated R for crude and sexual content, strong language and nudity.