Movie Review: Role Models

By Matthew Huntley

November 11, 2008

Why would you say my son is a nerd?

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Role Models suggests a new breed of comedy is upon us - one that's lewd, crude and sexual, but also intelligent, heartfelt and direct. Thanks to Judd Apatow's brand of humor, comedies have gradually become more character-driven, relying less on outrageous sight gags and more on the amusing flaws of human nature.

Some recent Apatow-associated movies have shown they can be too in love with themselves and often run too long (Pineapple Express), but Role Models (which Apatow had no hand in) exudes relentless confidence while maintaining superb comic timing; it feels no need to linger. This is one of the best comedies of the year.

It's kind of amazing it took four screenwriters to pen this movie's screenplay. That's usually a recipe for disaster. But Role Models pays off because its screenwriters - Paul Rudd, David Wain (who also directed), Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling - take their humor seriously and instinctively know what's funny and what's not. It probably helps they're all actors (two of them are in the movie). By speaking their own words and acting out their own situations, they could probably tell whether something was working. In Role Models, it almost all works.

Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are a couple promoters of their company's energy drink, Minotaur. Danny, dressed in a suit, and Wheeler, sporting a Minotaur costume, visit local schools and tell kids to stay off drugs and instead go for the refreshing taste of Minotaur, which causes its drinkers to secrete a bluish-green urine. But hey, it's better than drugs!

Danny returns to the office where his colleagues and girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), gather to celebrate his ten-year anniversary with the company. At 35, Danny feels like a failure - he's irascible, cynical and negative, the kind of guy who sucks the energy from those around him by making snide comments and insulting others. Beth tells him she can't take it anymore and decides to move out, which sends Danny over the edge. When his Minotaur truck is about to get towed, he pushes a police officer, attempts to high jack the truck and vandalizes school property.

Beth, who's also a lawyer, tells Danny and Wheeler they have a choice: either serve 30 days in jail or perform 150 hours of community service. Naturally, they opt for the service, which involves them mentoring kids at an organization called Sturdy Wings, headed by a crazy, ex-drug addict named Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch, in an inspired performance), who constantly reminds them of her traumatic past. Throughout the movie, Gayle seems to show up randomly and has a tendency to speak unclearly about a subject no one brought up in the first place.


Danny gets paired with a geeky kid named Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Wheeler a potty-mouthed smart aleck named Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson). Each kid has his own distinct qualities - Augie is a member of a Camelot/Renaissance role playing society called L.A.I.R.E. and Ronnie has a knack for spotting women with big breasts. The movie nicely balances its time between Danny and Wheeler's dilemmas to complete their service and become adequate influences. Gayle calls them the "Bigs" and the kids the "Littles."

With this kind of premise, we expect Role Models to play out a certain way - Danny and Wheeler will eventually grow fond of Augie and Ronnie; they'll find a way to disappoint them and jeopardize their service; they'll learn a thing or two about responsibility, etc. And while those things do happen, the screenplay presents them in a fresh way. The interaction between the characters feels real, the dialogue is zippy, and the situations are unpredictable. I especially liked the scenes involving L.A.I.R.E., which is all too easy to poke fun at, but by the end even I was hoping to participate.

I was also surprised by the chemistry between Rudd and Scott, both of whom are in full control of the material. By now, we've come to expect each actor to do his own shtick, but it's refreshing here. Scott seems to have grown beyond his usual "Stifler" antics, and while he still talks and behaves like Stifler, he's older and more mature.

Role Models also has a heart and a somewhat serious side. A couple different scenes show Danny and Wheeler confront each of the kids' parents and they're genuinely effective. Still, it refrains from getting too sentimental to the point where we don't believe it. Director Wain and editor Eric Kissack never allow the movie to wear out its welcome or become too much of something. At 95 minutes, the length is just right.

It's often assumed that comedy is easier to pull off than drama, as if comedy doesn't take as much craft, nuance or creativity. But Role Models, along with the wonderful Forgetting Sarah Marshall from earlier this year, are proving comedies can be just as indelible. They also tend to invoke more happiness, and we could all use more of that.



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