The secret to the crowd-pleasing potential of Role Models is that director David Wain cleverly tucks G-rated comedy into an R-rated wrapper. Like Zach and Miri Make a Porno but with infinitely better dialogue and pacing and an authentic feel for juvenile high spirits, Role Models has a tart surface and a heart of goo.
The movie grows more obvious as it goes along. But it allows the skillfully droll Paul Rudd to display glimmers of romance and heroism that make his humor more appealing than it's ever been before. (Rudd did his own rewrite of the script.) Judd Apatow's favorite existential fall guy in movies like Knocked Up, Rudd has spent his entire career playing flawed men or fools who can't live up to their conventional good looks. Since there are few surprises left in his haywire act, it's a relief to see Rudd in Role Models offset his usual high-end form of self-deprecation with displays of ardor and virtue.
Of course, he starts out as a pain. He plays Danny and Seann William Scott plays Wheeler, energy-drink salesmen who, like a couple of Johnny Guarana-seeds, hop from one school auditorium to the next, exhorting kids to avoid drugs and pick up Minotaur, their hyper-caffeinated and addictive drink. Danny, unlike Wheeler, finds this work unbearably hypocritical and limiting yet lacks the gumption to get out of it. His lawyer lover, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), dumps him after he descends into a tailspin of cynicism and ennui. Then he goes on an energy-drink toot that climaxes with him ramming his company's Minotaur Mobile on a statue of a school mascot. (The resulting Wild Kingdom sight gag is the funniest in the picture.) To avoid jail time, Wheeler and Danny sign up as mentors in the Sturdy Wings program for troubled or maladjusted kids.
The ensuing cross-generational confusions exude unexpected vitality. Danny gets teamed with Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a teenager who expends all his energy in the Dungeons and Dragons-like world of LAIRE ("Live Action Interactive Role-Playing Explorers"). Wheeler partners with Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a foul-mouthed fifth-grader who plays the race card to frivolous yet explosive effect.
It's a relief to see veterans of slacker or frat-house comedies such as Rudd and Scott (the linchpin of the American Pie movies) realize that rising generations can already outdo them in rebellion and recalcitrance. Young Thompson burns down the house when he brings a blistering machine-gun delivery to Ronnie's racial and generational put-downs; you may not realize why he calls Danny "Reindeer Games" until Ronnie explains, "You white, you Ben Affleck." (He also calls Danny "Miss Daisy.") The young Mintz-Plasse, an instant audience favorite in Superbad, uses his long, sad face to uncover some hidden, subtler humor as well as a hint of poignancy in Augie's attack on Danny's above-it-all demeanor.
When the movie pits all four against the authoritarian founder of Sturdy Wings, an ex-junkie named Sweeny who turns normal conversational responses into bawdy streams of non sequiturs (it's as if drugs permanently scrambled her verbal reflexes), Jane Lynch, a veteran of Christopher Guest's comic masterworks, invests the film with the rhythm and delight of nonsense verse. Even when it works, Role Models is no more than a series of skits, but for an hour it clicks along on bippity-bop rhythms. Although Wain overdraws on Banks' own sexy winsomeness to fill out an underwritten role, it's possible to savor her upbeat charm better here than in Zach and Miri.
Midway through, Role Models loses its originality and nerve. The characters make bad choices that boomerang and catapult Danny and Wheeler toward redemption. The turnarounds are not just sentimental: They're also lackadaisically plotted and performed. The climactic LAIRE Battle Royal contains satisfying parries and thrusts that unfortunately bring everyone together in the chicken-soupiest way.
But the movie, like its unlikely heroes, has its pungent moments. At its best, it balances salt and sap.
Role Models (Universal) Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks. Rated R for crude and sexual content, strong language and nudity. Time 99 minutes.