November 10, 2008

New Buddy Movie Uneven But Funny

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Comedies can be either predictable or completely unpredictable. The quality of a comedy is normally unaffected by whichever of these two options the movie employs, although a gut-bustingly hilarious comedy usually requires a few curveballs. Still, people routinely pay large sums and flock to theaters in droves to see Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell or the Farrelly brothers’ films, with Easy-Bake formula plots involving a combination of idiot and fish-out-of-water tropes. If the jokes work and the leads are appealing, the laughs still generate.
Role Models is an unusual film in this paradigm of comedies. It falls into its own category, not mentioned above; it is only somewhat unpredictable. Conventions in plot development come along every so often, but punch lines to jokes occasionally arrive straight out of left field. It’s not quite Anchorman or Hot Rod — the jokes are connected and not frustratingly random. But the movie never decides whether it will follow comfortably familiar lines or surprise the viewer, and it hurts in the long run, although one could argue the lack of a steady rhythm of the unexpected or formulaic makes things ultra-unpredictable, actually.
The film also has a weird combination of appealing leads and inconsistent jokes. Paul Rudd, who first appeared in Clueless and recently has become a comedy mainstay in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, teams up with Sean William Scott (American Pie’s Steve Stifler), and it should be a match made in comedy heaven. Yet, the writing is so spotty that only half the jokes avoid a flat fall, and a disappointingly high number of the good jokes have already been eaten up by the online trailer.
So, what is Role Models about, anyway? It’s about two representatives for an energy drink company with very different personalities. Danny (Rudd) is a 10-year man, whose overwhelming dissatisfaction with life and job — the line between which gets too blurred for his own comfort — and a smoldering asshole personality combine and lead to a meltdown when his lawyer girlfriend (played by the recently ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks) dumps him. Danny and Wheeler (Scott) happen to be on a routine tour of elementary schools, part of their company’s campaign to encourage the purchase of their product as an anti-drug. Their company vehicle gets selected for a trip to the DMV, and Danny overreacts. He attempts to one-up the auto-tower by driving away and totals the tow truck and school statue.
Enlisting his girlfriend’s help, Danny, along with Wheeler, decides to do 150 hours of community service rather than serve 30 days in jail for the incident. The company for service: a mentorship organization called Sturdy Wings, run by an ex-junkie named Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch). Danny and Wheeler are paired with Augie (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Lasse, a.k.a. McLovin’) and Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), two kids with varying neuroses. Augie is obsessed with fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft to a frightening degree, even partaking in a real-life fantasy society called LAIRE (it needs to be seen to be believed … one can only hope its combination of ComicCon and a Renaissance Faire is a movie invention only). Ronnie is a tough young black kid determined to use vulgarity and racism to act out in every possible hostile way and drive mentors mad.
Danny and Wheeler, through conversation and behavior (the first 20 seconds of the movie alone, for example), have proven they are hardly figures worth emulating, but the movie takes pride in developing their reluctant characters. They bond with Augie and Ronnie, and learn about the kids’ family lives and perhaps why they behave as they do. At first, their untamability is played for laughs, but as their characters are explored, the audience sympathizes and comprehends them, and the movie bothers enough to stop jeering at everyone involved.
Here’s where predictability sets in. It’s no spoiler to say that things start out rocky, the characters bond, conflicts are introduced and everything is rectified in a culminating final event. The girlfriend even comes back. Yay.
The movie is doomed to conventionality from the start, one supposes, because the premise is nothing new and the leads are much-loved character actors. We see Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott playing riffs on characters we already know, Rudd being the over-the-hill middle-aged adolescent full of snarky comments, and Scott doing yet another variation on Steve Stifler, but with a slightly developed dimension of maturity. Slightly. The plot is Mighty Ducks meets Big Daddy, and everything in between. Mintz-Plasse is Fogel all over again. Banks plays it straight. And Jane Lynch is a crazy ex-addict in an unassuming, almost grandmotherly exterior. Nothing new here. The only hope is for the jokes. And even then, half fall flat. Good grief.
Is the movie funny? Individual parts are better than the whole. Hilarious moments are genuinely crazy and absolutely knee-slapping, but separated by chunks of exposition and repeatedly unfunny sequences. The movie knows what it is about and goes where it needs to go. The amicable performances and occasional surprises, combined with plenty of breasts, foul language, a slew of typical scenarios and a thankfully unorthodox ending makes Role Models a decidedly not revolutionary but hardly awful comedy viewing experience.