Sunday, March 23, 2008

Drillbit Taylor / *½ (PG-13)

Drillbit Taylor: Owen Wilson
Wade: Nate Hartley
Ryan: Troy Gentile
Emmet: David Dorfman
Filkins: Alex Frost
Ronnie: Josh Peck
Don: Danny McBride
Lisa: Leslie Mann

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Brill. Written by Kristofor Brown & Seth Rogen and Edmond Dantes. Running time: 102 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity).

Each year some 500 to 600 movies are released theatrically in the United States. Out of those, there are maybe 50 or 60 that I have no desire to see. Well, “Drillbit Taylor” falls into that category. Just from the marketing of the film, there is a sense of indifference about it. The poster doesn’t really seem to say anything about it, and the trailer contains no elements that distinguish it from other films of its genre or its star Owen Wilson.

In many ways, “Drillbit” is just a younger, tamer version of last August’s R-rated sleeper “Superbad”. This is no coincidence since it was co-written by that movie’s Seth Rogen. While that movie centered on two nerds’ senior year of high school, “Drillbit Taylor” concentrates half of its energy on two similar characters’ freshman year. Wade (Nate Hartley) is tall and freakishly skinny, while his best pal Ryan (Troy Gentile) has an unhealthy appreciation of food for a boy his age. They desperately want to make a great impression on their first day of high school. It’s no surprise that they don’t, and even worse, they draw the attention of the school bully, Filkins (Alex Frost, “Elephant”), who looks like a young, evil John Cusack.

At the same time, “Drillbit Taylor” also wants to be yet another vehicle for Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) to play that likeable loser who turns his life around. Wilson is the titular Drillbit, a street bum AWOL from the Army who schemes with his homeless buddy Don (Danny McBride, “Hot Rod”) to steal enough money to travel to Canada and live off state welfare. Like so many of Wilson’s characters, Drillbit isn’t quite all there, but he surrounds himself with people who would lose against him in the cleverness game by half.

These two seemingly unrelated storylines are brought together when the two boys team up with a third outcast, Emmet (David Dorfman, “The Ring”), to hire a bodyguard for protection against the bully. Drillbit shows up claiming to have protected various presidents and movie stars and not seeming to know which were which. One of two good laughs comes when Adam Baldwin appears dressed exactly the same as his character from the 1980 movie “My Bodygaurd” and proclaims what a lame idea it is for some nerds to hire a bodyguard. It is a sad comment on this movie that its best joke is an insider cameo referring to a barely remembered, 28-year-old movie. Even more telling is the fact that he’s right—it is a lame idea.

Director Steven Brill (“Little Nicky”) and producer Judd Apatow—who had such a good year in 2007 bringing audiences “Knocked Up”, “Superbad” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”—call in a lot of favors with similar cameos from David Koechner, Lisa Lampanelli, Stephen Root and others. Apatow’s real-life wife, the undeniably charming and beautiful Leslie Mann (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), is even cast as one of the school’s teachers who falls for Drillbit. Unfortunately, Apatow failed to insist that her character have any development or motivation.

The movie feels oddly muted, as if it wants to go further with its comedy but is held back by its PG-13 rating. The rating may be appropriate for the age set it is aimed at, but it feels like the script has been stripped of its punchlines. Rogen had his chance to farm this material more effectively in his screenplay for “Superbad”, while Kristofor Brown comes from the Apatow-produced television series “Undeclared” and various Beavis and Butthead projects. Neither is allowed to be as crass as they’ve been elsewhere, since they are writing for an age group below their strengths. They can’t mine the sex and gross out jokes they’ve built their careers on because these kids just aren’t old enough yet. Sex does find its way in as a substitute for romance between Wilson and Mann, which comes off more disturbing than funny. It is interesting that a story credit goes to Edmond Dantes, a pseudonym for John Hughes, whose comedic death rattle came somewhere between the first “Home Alone” film and 1994’s “Baby’s Day Out.”

In the end the filmmakers resort to violence as a form of comedy, which seems less appropriate than even sex for the heroes. It’s funny when Wade and Ryan are hitting each other to try and toughen up for the final showdown with their nemesis, but when their rumble with the bully ends with a samurai sword and a lost finger, it becomes more disturbing than two school faculty members having sex in the classrooms at all hours of the day. “Drillbit Taylor” feels like a scraping of the bottom of the barrel for everyone involved except the two young leads. And despite their enthusiasm, everyone else involved seems well aware that this movie only deserves performances as half-hearted as the jokes it contains.

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