March 27, 2008

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Drillbit Taylor (PG-13)
Owen Wilson plays a variant on his surfer bum character protecting a variation on the Seth Rogen characters from Superbad in Drillbit Taylor, one standard deviation of funny away from the usual output of the Judd Apatow universe.

Judd Apatow is just a producer here and, like those Farrelly-brother-produced films that don’t bear their fingerprints on the script or the direction, his absence from more of a direct role in the movie is evident here, more so even than in Superbad (on which he also had a producer credit).

We see a slightly younger, slightly less self-assured (if that’s possible) version of those Superbad geeks in the bookish Wade (Nate Hartley), the chubby wannabe rapper Ryan (Troy Gentile), who embarks on a campaign in his first year of high school to get people to call him T-Dog, and their even nerdier third wheel Emmit (David Dorfman), who is a shorter, hobbitier McLovin in training.

Wade and Ryan, a-hem, T-Dog think that high school is going to be great — think that right up to the moment they both arrive at the bus stop wearing the same shirt. That and Wade’s against-all-reason defense of Emmit from a pair of bullies paints a flaming bullseye on the boys. Ronnie (Josh Peck) and the seemingly untouchable Filkins (Alex Frost), who, as an emancipated minor, has no parents to answer to for his shmuckery, pants Wade and Ryan, lodge them in various places, chase them all over suburban creation and generally make their lives hell. With their parents unwilling to see the torment for what it is, the boys are left to defend themselves, or, as the case is, to pay for someone else to defend them.

Enter Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson).

A homeless man with some kind of vague claim at having been in the Army, Drillbit has decided to go to Canada and become a homesteader; he just needs the money to get him there. When he sees the ad the kids post online looking for a bodyguard, he decides to answer it with the intention of snatching the money and pawnable goods he can find and heading for the British Columbian hills. But his fellow bums convince him to think of the long con, and Drillbit decides to stick around to “protect” the boys and figure out what other money he can steal. Though he’s not a particularly good bodyguard, he is pretty solid at giving the boys the confidence to do a little standing up on their own. And, once he starts posing as a substitute teacher, he’s able to do a lot of deflecting of the bullies’ attention.

In one of the movie’s zanier subplots, Drillbit — or Dr. Illbit, as he introduces himself in the teachers’ lounge — starts up a relationship with another teacher named Lisa (Leslie Mann, or Mrs. Judd Apatow — a whiz at hitting just the right notes of looniness plus barely restrained anger). She increases his desire to keep the bodyguard gig going and helps to balance the kid-focused story with a bit of adult humor. It’s a role that works better than it sounds here or than it appears in the trailer — a theme to this movie overall. Nothing as I describe it here sounds particularly funny when I look back at it — more cruel and juvenile. But the movie did make me laugh in spite of itself, in spite of its mean-kid sense of humor and well-trodden bits about the hero in the heart of the guy who appears to be merely a coward pretending to be a hero, about the little guy learning to stand up for himself, about the comedy gold that is a foul-mouthed chubby kid. (Ryan acts like he’s trying out for a role in the Bugsy Malone version of The Sopranos. It is 50 percent hilarious and 50 percent adorable.)

Beneath some of the uneven stuff, Drillbit Taylor is redeemed more often than not by its heart. This band of nerdy brothers really care for each other, more so, sometimes, than their parents. Beneath all the cartoony action and slapstick, that surprisingly emotional core keeps the comedy grounded in something like real life. B-

Rated PG-13 for drug content, language including sexual references, thematic elements and brief violence. Directed by Steven Brill and written by Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen and Edmond Dantes (which, as far as I can tell, is a pseudonym for John Hughes), Drillbit Taylor is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.