Danny (Paul Rudd) is at a loss. Why, he wonders, is longtime girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) suddenly restless? What has he done to deserve his soul-killing job, pitching Minotaur Energy Drink to high schoolers? And why, oh why, is his best friend and pitch partner the monstrously indefatigable Wheeler (Seann William Scott)?
None of these questions is answered in Role Models. And none really matters, either. Danny’s the sort of leading man who’s become popular lately — immature and restless, palling around with supporting men of similar persuasions. Danny’s not quite so round as Seth Rogen, but he’s in that ballpark, emotional retardation-wise. He abuses coffee chop clerks and frets in front of Beth, because, you know, she’s an energetic, smart lawyer and has nothing better to do than comfort her go-nowhere beau. Their breakup is ostensibly triggered when he’s less than thrilled by the surprise party she throws for his10th year with Minotaur. Suddenly (or yet again?) imagining a future of riding around in a van adorned with giant horns, Danny is despondent and mean-spirited. His moments of lucidity (he apologizes for being a “dickish dick”) ensure that he will eventually be redeemed, but for now, because the film needs a plot-jumping zap, Beth breaks off the relationship.
This crisis (“Wow, today sucks”) leads Danny to behave even more badly — in front of the children to whom he is supposed to be, as he puts it, “selling poison.” After suggesting that kids take drugs “because they’re awesome,” Danny drives the Minotaur van over a statue on school grounds, whereupon he and Wheeler (riding shotgun) are charged with multiple crimes (“You guys are fucked,” assesses Beth, professionally). Their oh-so-ironic punishment is to serve 150 hours as “role models” for boys in a program called “Sturdy Wings.”
Conceived and managed by Gayle (Jane Lynch, who is sublime), the organization pairs “bigs” (mentors) with “littles” in need of fatherlike oversight. A onetime crackhead, Gayle is now, she beams plastically, “addicted to helping,” though she’s not averse to using her scary past to threaten her workers (“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” she warns, I’ve been to prison, the prison of drugs, alcohol, and sick thoughts!”). She assigns Wheeler to angrily fatherless Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), less a character than a walking joke, namely, the cute-kid-spewing-foul-language joke. After accusing his new big of trying to “grab my joint,” Ronnie sends his new “bee-yatch” to buy him juice (“Don’t get me that from-concentrate shit”), then proceeds to steal his car and call him more names (“I’m not your pal, Vanilla!”). Only when Wheeler introduces Ronnie to his KISS records collection do they recognize their bottom-line mutual interest: “boobies.”
Danny is less inclined to make friends with nerdy Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Confessing upfront that “I’m not really into the whole buddy-buddy, let’s go do stuff together sort of thing,” he’s horrified to learn he’ll be spending time with Augie in his medieval kingdom role-playing game, where agonizingly earnest players dressed as knights, plebes, and princesses spend their afternoons planning monthly showdown battles. (Instructed to name himself for one such encounter, Danny comes up with “Lunesta”: “Isn’t that a sleeping aid?” asks a puzzled knight.)
The script (by director David Wain, Ken Marino, Timothy Dowling, and Rudd) erects an intricate structure of multiple roles to be played, by lost boys Danny and Wheeler, by misfit boys Augie and Ronnie, by chronic self-promoter-and-self-consumer Gayle and even, in her precious few minutes on screen, by Beth (hers might be best reduced to girlfriend, convenient legal resource, walking redemption). Still, the premise is ragingly formulaic and, worse or better, depending on your tolerance for repetition, has Scott re-playing Stifler with the job he deserves (stuffed inside a minotaur costume) and the ever-light-touched Rudd re-playing his usual weary outsider (think: Clueless, The Ten, Knocked Up). Danny and Wheeler discover their better selves working with boys who reflect their terminally immature inner selves, even, in Danny’s case, speaking up for them against adults who don’t get them. The most prominent cases in point are easiest targets — King Argotron (Ken Jeong), whose lording over his minions enrages Danny, and Augie’s passive-aggressive mom (Kerri Kenney-Silver), exhorting her son leave the kingdom and “join the rest of the world.”
In fact, Role Models invites you to head the other way, to celebrate the kingdom as advertised on its website: a “fantasy world where anything is possible” at least if you’re a boy in need of approval. While this plot trajectory doesn’t, on its face, suggest anyone “grows up,” the film does propose that a more generous sort of childishness — embodied by KISS in full regalia — is preferable to an adult realm in which the players are selfish, willfully blind, and bent on avenging their own lamentable childhoods. While the film offers a brief glimpse of a cool girl fighter (Augie’s frankly awesome crush), it gives itself over to an ultimate fantasy, in which boys act like boys and still win their mothers’ approvals.