[7 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Some may call them “bros”, or the more high school appropriate “tools”, but eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life.
This formula has been followed in several recent very successful laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and even Superbad. Each time, the taint of testosterone unfettered overwhelms the notion of subtlety or clear substance. Now there’s another name to add to the ever-growing genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models (new to DVD in an Unrated edition from Universal) provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. It’s also one of 2008’s most consistently surprising sleepers.
When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously.
Rapidly becoming the MVP of the entire Bro-mance genre, Paul Rudd has rapidly become a consistently comic foil. The last time we saw the actor and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if somewhat structure-less, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.
The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down…“Ben Affleck”).
The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.
So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.
As part of the new DVD package, we get more saucy, scandalous material. The Unrated moments are no bluer or ballsier than the original, but the added anarchy really swings. So does the commentary track from director Wain. Insightful without being insipid, he brings a lot of humor and wit to the track. Equally entertaining are the numerous bits of added content, including deleted scenes, bloopers, improvisational bits with the cast, and some anarchic behind the scenes sneak peeks. Clearly, as with most comedies, Role Models was made up of the best bits of pieced together hilarity. The results definitely speak loudly for Wain’s continuing success as a filmmaker.
Oddly enough, Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.