A film review by Craig J. Koban

ROLE MODELS jjj

2008, R, 99 mins.

Wheeler: Seann William Scott / Danny: Paul Rudd / Augie: Christopher Mintz-Plasse / Sweeny: Jane Lynch / Ronnie: Bobb'e J. Thompson / Beth: Elizabeth Banks

Directed by David Wain / Screenplay by Paul Rudd, Wain, Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling

Something is not right here.  I was not expecting to like ROLE MODELS at all.  The trailers for the film certainly did not make it look like it was going to approach even the level of a disposable, B-grade, direct-to-video fare.  

However, I left the theatre with a sly grin on my face, which certainly stayed with me throughout much of ROLE MODELS’ running time.  My most basic expectations of a screen comedy are modest and slight, to say the least:  If they make me laugh and laugh consistently, then they have more than achieved their status quo.  ROLE MODELS is kind of clever and surprisingly smart with how it garners huge laughs, but what impressed me the most was how little it did to be uproarious: This is a comedy that understands the subtle and discrete art of under-cranked, deadpanned comedy, something that far too many and terribly unfunny and disagreeable comedies have severely lacked as of late. 

The film is also unapologetically and refreshingly adult in its content: it certainly aspires for and more than achieves the moniker of a raunchy and potty mouth R-rated comedy.  The film is enamored with its own scatological wit and innuendo.  Yet, what separates it far apart from other lewdfests is that the main stars of the film don't engage in disgraceful camera mugging hysterics to over sell the jokes and pratfalls. Instead, we get two fairly grounded performances that understand that the best way to get a laugh is to not oversell the punchline or one-liner. 

Just consider one incendiary - and sidesplitting - line of dialogue provided by a child mentorship program leader, played wickedly by Jane Lynch.  Her character is a former crack addict that has a matter-of-fact way of letting her peers know about her past indiscretions.  At one point she tells the two male leads, “Me and the judge have a special relationship…I don’t wanna get graphic, but I sucked his dick for drugs.”  In the wrong comedians’ hands, this line would have been cringe-worthy and tasteless.  But seeing Lynch underplay the unsavory line with a level of carefree nonchalance makes it all the more hysterical.  

The rest of the film follows suit. 

Much like many recent films, ROLE MODELS is essentially a bromance that involves two incomparable slackers with go-nowhere aspirations.  One is Danny (Paul Rudd, a comedic dynamo with the minimalist effort) and his BFF Wheeler (played by Stiffler himself, Seann William Scott, handling himself well here).  The two have the dubious job of going from high school to high school peddling a new energy drink called “Minotaur”, which Danny humorously labels as poison.  Danny is essentially the PR man that does most of the speaking to the teen crowds, while Wheeler dresses up like a humanoid Minotaur for effect.  They frequently preach the philosophy of not doing drugs to the kids (hypocritical, considering that they are shown smoking doobies in-between jobs at one point) and, as a drug alternative, they should all drink Minotaur (equally hypocritical, considering that the drink has no nutritional value, not to mention that if you digest too much it will turn your urine green…not a good sign).  The pair do make quite the impression, most of which is made primarily out of the huge monster truck style vehicle that is decked out to look like a minotaur, complete with flaming exhaust. 

During one ruinous day Danny decides to hastily propose to his girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Banks, owner of the brightest and most engaging smile in the movies right now.  She is a career minded lawyer that is starting to think that her relationship with the freewheeling and unmotivated Danny is keeping her down.  Just after she turns down Danny’s feeble proposal, she royally dumps him, which sends the disgruntled dude into a tailspin.  He takes his frustrations out while on the job, where he gets so hopped up on his own energy drink that he tells an auditorium full of kids to say “to hell with life” and do whatever they feel like.  To make matters worse, Danny drives the company truck up against a statue of the school’s mascot...and in a highly uncompromising fashion. 

As a result of Danny’s categorically bad misjudgment, both he and Wheeler are given two options: (a) Do hard time in the slammer or (b) do 150 hours of community service in a mentorship program.  The program itself involves the men becoming big brother figures of sorts to a couple of underprivileged and “troubled” youth.  Considering the serious levels of self-loathing that Danny has on a daily basis – not to mention the sheer immaturity and sexual promiscuity that Wheeler embodies – the two seem a very unlikely fit for this type of program.  The director of the program, the deeply amusing Jane Lynch, warns the two that she can see right through their lecherous facades.  She too was once a loser: her issues were with a cocaine addiction, and some of the film’s best laughs occur when she unassumingly conjures up memories of her emotional battles with drugs.  She gives Danny and Wheeler an firm ultimatum: do a good job or go straight to the slammer. 

All the hapless pair want to do is to get through their 150 hours as pain free as possible, but the two kids they are respectively partnered with do not make this grueling tour of duty any easier.  Firstly, Danny gets paired up with super-duper uber-nerd named Augie (played in all of his geekdom glory by SUPERBAD’S McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  Just how nerdy is this kid?  Well, his life is completely embroiled in playing a real-life medieval fantasy game called LARP (Live Action Role Playing) that involves its players (children and adults alike)dressing up like warriors in fake armor, spouting rubber swords and staging large scale battles.  I am not sure what is more creepy: the fact that socially introverted kids like Augie are so devastatingly intoxicated with the game or the fact that adults with apparently no lives whatsoever take the game just as seriously.  The self-professed King of the game universe is “Argotron” (Ken Jeong, who played the seriously uptight doctor in KNOCKED UP) who takes this fantasy universe so gravely that he even makes his underlings feed him and wipe his mouth off while in public restaurants.  I laughed uncontrollably when he ordered de-caffeinated coffee:  Hell, being the King of a fake world is pretty stressful. 

The other kid in question is one motor mouth with a vulgar tongue that would make the gangsters in GOODFELLAS blush.  He is Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, a wonderful new find), a ten-year-old black kid that just may typify “difficult” child.  First, he throws down unremitting F-bombs without hesitation, and then (in one of the film’s hysterical moments) he accuses Wheeler of attempting to fondle him upon their first meeting.  Wheeler has the most difficult task ahead of him when it comes to chipping away at the feisty and superhumanly naughty Ronnie, but lightning strikes for him when he discovers that the young lad has an early passion for...boobs.  Their bonding occurs when Wheeler discovers how to talk to the precocious kid, which involves a lot of helpful and practical advice on how to look at a woman’s cleavage while not appearing like you’re looking.  One piece of advice about courting the opposite sex has a real uplifting message, especially for those that feel unlucky in love: “Remember, for every man in the world there is one woman with two boobies, more or less.”  Even more hilarious is how Wheeler introduces Ronnie to the glory of KISS, which involves songs of a subliminally bawdy nature that Ronnie develops a taste for.  The way Wheeler explains the real meaning behind the song “Love Gun” is one of the film’s comic high points. 

At face value, ROLE MODELS is woefully predictable.  Of course the two boy-men that are Danny and Wheeler will initially treat their mentorship with horrible disdain and only later develop an understanding a rapport with their respective “littles” (as the program director calls the kids).  The film also has the fairly telegraphed subplot involving one set of severely innocuous parents (in this case, Augie’s) that fail to appreciate or understand their strange son’s passions.  Of course, only the big brother in Danny eventually comes around and begins to see that there is more to this gawky and unassuming teen than meets the eye.  Then we have the routine moment of the film where the kids and adult mentors have a falling out, only to be recuperated during the final act when the kids need them the most.   

Yet, ROLE MODELS overcomes its innate predictability with its very funny performances and some of its choices.  Paul Rudd has been such a winning and irreproachably funny supporting actor in several of the best comedies of recent memory (see THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, KNOCKED UP) so it’s a real pleasure to see him overcome the unmitigated disaster that was his unfortunate starring turn in this year’s OVER HER DEAD BODY (which astoundingly neutered his comic ferocity).  He becomes the comedic glue that holds the film together.  The way Rudd is able to sustain small and large laughs with his quiet and soft spoken modulation is a hoot, as are his impeccable timing and ability to let his laid back approach let the chuckles fly off the screen.  He handling of some of the film’s better dialogue exchanges (which apparently were courtesy of a last minute script re-write by the actor himself) shows his shrewd and cunning edge.  One moment where he has an argument with a coffee shop employee is truly inspired.  He wants a large black coffee, to which the worker replies “Do you mean venti? That means large.”  Rudd scathingly retorts, “No, venti means twenty.  Large is large.  In fact, tall is large and grande is Spanish for large.  Venti is the only one that does not mean large.  It’s also the only one that’s Italian.”  It’s the type of exchange Woody Allen would be proud of. 

Other performers fare equally well.  Seann William Scott, who seems to have the difficult job of overcoming his Stiffler shadow with every comedic role, is a nice comic foil to Rudd’s underplayed loafer.  Both Scott and Rudd have a nice, easygoing chemistry that’s never feels forced.  Jane Lynch, who previously played Paul Rudd’s truly odd electronic store manager in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, scores more big guffaws with her somewhat demented mentorship program leader.  Robb’e J. Thompson has a remarkable assured comic energy and charisma for an actor of his limited years (think Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock trapped in a ten-year-old’s body).  And then there is McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who once again has a field day playing a monumentally shrill voiced reject, but not without a heart.  For a comic actor of limited experience, he manages to inhabit his character's awkward inflections and nervous energy better than many other more seasoned actors.  The way he plays one simply line of dialogue after getting to first base with a cute girl he has a crush on is absolutely pitch perfect.   

2008 has been a remarkably decent year for comedies.  Films like FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (the best), PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (second best), TROPIC THUNDER (third in line) and now ROLE MODELS have re-awakened the genre from stubborn complacency.   Yes, MODELS is not as laugh out loud funny as EXPRESS, not as subversive with its jokes as the satiric and ambitious THUNDER, and certainly does not blend debauchery with sentiment and sweetness like MARSHALL did, but the film is nevertheless funny in just the right dosages.  What’s surprising about ROLE MODELS is how unexpectedly entertaining and funny it is and how it manages to overcome its fairly one-note-premise and simplistic veneer and emerge with as a comedy with wit and spirit.  And with the more than capable Paul Rudd at the helm of this ship – an actor who is severely underused as comedic leading man material – ROLES MODELS never once capsizes. 

After the misery of OVER HER DEAD BODY, all is forgiven, Paul.

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