It's a measure of the popularity of the Judd Apatow film universe that there's now a recognizable Seth Rogen "type." It's also a measure of the limitations of this universe.
In "Knocked Up," Rogen played Rogen; in "Superbad," Jonah Hill played him; and in "Drillbit Taylor," young Troy Gentile assumes the role of husky, curly-haired wiseacre.
Like "Superbad," "Drillbit" was co-written by Rogen and produced by Apatow, and like "Superbad," it centers on a trio of high school boys who range from dork (Gentile) to dorkier (Nate Hartley) to dorkiest (David Dorfman). Their goal might be different — finding protection from a bully rather than finding the party — but the characters and setting are eerily similar.
The difference with "Drillbit" is the presence of Owen Wilson. But that's problematic as well, because the film isn't sure whether it's about his character — a homeless man posing as a soldier of fortune — or about the kids. Though it contains funny moments, "Drillbit" is derivative, disjointed and sometimes tasteless (and not in a good way).
Ryan (Gentile) and his beanpole best pal, Wade (Hartley), enter their freshman year seeking ways to be popular — or at least ways to not get beaten up. But Wade is unable to just stand back and watch a bully (Alex Frost) stuff a tiny kid (Dorfman) into a locker.
He speaks up, thus earning the enmity of the bully, Filkins, and the devotion of the squirt, Emmit. Though Ryan doesn't want Emmit hanging around and cramping his style, Wade doesn't mind, because he's a sweetheart. Hartley shows a confident comic delivery while lending Wade a gentle spirit.
Director Steven Brill ("Without a Paddle") offers a montage of Filkins terrorizing the boys in various ways — some inspired, most not. It doesn't help that Frost's performance is so one-note.
The kids report Filkins to the principal, hoping to get him in trouble with his parents. But he eludes that brand of justice because he's an emancipated minor whose parents live outside the country. This development strains credibility, if only in the "minor" part. Frost is 21 and looks 25.
If it seems as if it has taken me a while to get back to the guy adorning the movie's poster, it's because Wilson's role is a glorified supporting part, with the picture shifting its focus awkwardly between the boys' story line and that of Wilson's Drillbit Taylor character, who panhandles on a busy street and lives in the woods. The story lines merge when Drillbit, who has co-opted a customer's laptop at a coffeehouse, sees the boys' Internet ad seeking a bodyguard.
Played by Wilson with the same blithe and quirky approach that he brings to most roles, Drillbit is one of those movie-style homeless people unburdened by addiction or mental illness. Homelessness is more of a lifestyle choice, therefore lending itself to a joke about how Drillbit smells and a sight gag of his dirty socks standing on their own. Hilarious.
Drillbit's status is treated not as a crisis but as a convenient starting point for a stock movie-character transformation from selfish (he agrees to help the kids only for the money at first) to caring (he eventually finds his heart). There's little room in the Apatow universe for sociological study beyond that of the habits of the nerdy, middle-class male.
Thank goodness Apatow is married to a talented actress, or these movies might do away with substantial female roles altogether. Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann ("Knocked Up"), who plays a teacher who meets Drillbit when he poses as a substitute (it's a long, underdeveloped story), brightens "Drillbit Taylor" every time she appears.
Mann and Wilson create sparks as their characters flirt in the teachers lounge. Wilson exhibits far more energy at these moments than he does during obligatory scenes of Drillbit teaching the boys to fight.
Like Wilson, Mann can wring laughs even from mediocre lines. Here's an idea: How about Apatow and Rogen forget the freaky-geeky boys for a while and give Mann a starring role?
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