Having seen the TV commercials and theatrical trailers, I had little enthusiasm for an outing to see director David Wain's Role Models. The promotional materials make the film look slapsticky and lowbrow, not usually my cup of tea. And, indeed, Role Models is not the kind of film I normally find entertaining. There is food thrown in characters' faces, jokes about defecation, various instances of characters punching each other and wrestling in the dirt, and scenes of female nudity so gratuitous that they will be excised when the picture is released to network TV without any viewer being able to detect that something was cut. All that said, for viewers not offended by language from the likes of Richard Pryor, some of it coming from a child, I give this film about as strong a recommendation as I can muster. It ain't heavy, but, brother, is it funny.
Written by Wain with Paul Rudd, Role Models is the story of a couple of thirtysomething just-post-slackers who make their living hawking an energy drink to teenagers as an alternative to drugs and alcohol. The product is called Minotaur, and it delivers a buzz powerful enough to dilate Paul Bunyan's eyes and those of Babe the Blue Ox, too. Rudd plays Danny Donahue, the straight man of the sales duo. He dresses in a coat and tie and appears before high-school and junior-high audiences to deliver insincere patter he's ashamed of. His job has made him cranky, and it's affecting his relationship with his lawyer girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). Danny's best friend Wheeler (Seann William Scott) is content with his employment as Danny's sidekick. The money is OK, and the hours allow for plenty of opportunities for chasing babes, which is his true occupation. On the job, Wheeler plays Harpo to Danny's snarly Groucho. Wheeler dresses in a furry Minotaur costume and mimes at Danny's side. Their schtick is reasonably funny, but we are only getting started.
Danny is so existentially discontent he loses control of himself one day over a parking ticket and lands himself and Wheeler before a judge. They can choose 30 days in the slammer or an equal amount of time as big brothers for a couple of troubled kids. Danny draws Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the hilarious McLovin in Superbad), a lonely, nerdy teen whose only social outlet derives from participation in a medieval fantasy game complete with Monty Python-esque costumes and elaborate battles staged on weekends in public parks. Wheeler gets Ronnie Shields (Bobb'e J. Thompson), an angry African-American 10-year-old with a mouth no cake of soap could ever wash clean. The relationship between the four individuals starts with ambivalence and acrimony. None of them, adults or children, wants to be involved with the program. Danny and Augie go through the paces, while Wheeler is forced to play constant defense against Ronnie's hostility. But then, of course, as the formula for films like this requires, everybody shows his better side, and the foursome join forces to take on all those who would oppose them.
Most comedies of this kind (Knocked Up and Superbad being exceptions) fall flat because they simply aren't funny. Wain's and Rudd's script created distinctive and ultimately appealing characters and provided each of them riffs of side-splitting dialogue. The comedic writing is so strong it steamrolls the inconsistencies in the acting techniques. Jane Lynch, who plays Gayle Sweeny, the former cocaine-addict executive director of the big brother operation, has been funny previously in A Mighty Wind and The Forty Year Old Virgin, but she's an over-the-top, mugging performer in a film where more subtle and rounded actors Rudd, Scott and Banks play their parts straight.
Role Models also is notable for its sweetness of spirit. The sentimentality of the evolving loyalty among the big brothers and their 'littles" could have grated, but buoyed by laughs, instead feels welcome and uplifting. Moreover, the script's generosity extends to most everyone. The parents of the boys are redeemed as are the various dorky participants (most of them, it seems, middle-aged men " itself an ultimately sympathetic commentary) in Augie's fantasy game. We even understand Lynch's obnoxious Sweeny is actually and sincerely determined to make a positive difference in children's lives.
But my recommendation for this film finally rests on the relentlessness of its humor. Nothing is wasted, so don't miss Wheeler's discussion of the rock band Kiss or the Minotaurmobile. Everything is designed to produce laughs, and everything does. I laughed until I cried and laughed at myself for crying.