Drillbit Taylor is the latest in the long line of movies produced by Judd Apatow in which the pathetic heroes suffer the slings and arrows of high school before causing trouble and fighting back against the external forces that are ruining their young lives. Apatow’s filmmaking prowess has made him a machine when it comes to stories like this one, where the freaks and geeks manage to do right and get the girl. But the film is also the least in touch with a sense of reality and the most willing to throw off the chains of real angst in favor of broader comedy, which puts it closer to Superbad (exploding cop cars) than, say, Knocked Up (the existential torment of adulthood). Although it’s produced by Apatow and features co-writing duties from Seth Rogen, it’s one of the few films from that crew where the hand of the director — in this case, Steven Brill — can be felt. Brill is an amiable guy who makes wacky comedies about losers doing well, and everything you need to know about his artistic sensibilities and worldview can be gleaned from the fact that his first feature was 1995’s Heavyweights, another Apatow script. Drillbit Taylor is dopey but sweet, a mixture of decent jokes and predictable plotting that’s completely devoid of surprises but still somehow mostly entertaining.
Wade (Nate Hartley) and Ryan (Troy Gentile) are two incoming high school freshmen in an indeterminate but resolutely white part of Los Angeles who are determined to take the 9th grade by storm, even though they’re two pretty solid losers: Wade is thin as a rail with glasses and a mop of feminine wavy hair, while Ryan is the overweight, sarcastic one who’s inexplicably attached to hip-hop. As if Wade’s painful eagerness to be liked weren’t bad enough, they wind up wearing the same shirt on the first day of school, which only makes them that much greater a target for Filkins (Alex Frost), the kind of balls-out psycho villain you’re really going to find in movies like this one. Filkins and his sidekick, Ronnie (Josh Peck), make it their mission to torment Wade and Ryan for being different, and despite Wade’s attempts to keep starting high school over — he keeps saying, “OK, this is the first day of our high school experience” for most of the boys’ first week — Filkins won’t be shaken off. Rogen and co-writer Kristofor Brown, who share story credit with John Hughes (!), actually find a way to sidestep parental involvement by making Filkins an emancipated minor. In the words of Emmit (David Dorfman), a fellow outcast even geekier than Wade and Ryan who’s gravitated to them out of sheer pack mentality, Filkins is “above the law.” The boys can’t even get help from the principal (Steven Root), and the repeated physical punishment leads them to pool their allowances and bar mitzvah money and do the only thing they can think of with their backs against the wall: They hire a bodyguard.
It’s a promising set-up, and Brill manages to bring a spark of life to the inevitable montage in which the boys interview potential heroes for hire. (The best in-joke of the movie is when a disgruntled Adam Baldwin, complete with Army jacket, tells them that a geek hiring a bodyguard is the worst idea he’s ever heard.) The three geeks eventually meet with Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless man who spends his days panhandling in Santa Monica with his homeless pals and seems to have a relatively easygoing life for not having a job or place to live. Drillbit is vaguely moral but still opportunistic, so he gives the boys a speech about being a former Army Ranger and having lived through some terrible battles. “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate,” he tells them with quiet fear, but even when Emmit correctly guesses that he’s quoting Blade Runner, the boys are too naïve to see through the con, so they hire him.
From there, the film struggles to walk the line between the predictable comedy it mostly is and the occasionally endearing geek-revenge film it wants badly to be, and it’s not hard to see the tonal shifting as a mirror of the unavoidable tension in a story that’s credited to both Hughes (as Edmond Dantes) and Rogen. Although Hughes’ formative teen comedies 20 years ago made movies like this one possible, for a long time he’s been doing nothing but the kind of cornball screenplays that are the antithesis to the more rough-edged morality of Apatow and Co. For instance, the boys trade insults with each other, and Ryan is adamant about ditching Emmit to keep life from getting worse than it already is, but Wade talks with Drillbit about friendship in a saccharine way that doesn’t quite fit with the characters or the world they’re inhabiting. Drillbit Taylor is a decent little comedy, but it would be a lot better if it had turned away from every moment that feels remotely requisite. For instance, after training the boys in some phony martial arts, Drillbit infiltrates the school and pretends to be a substitute. It’s a good idea, especially when he hits it off romantically with an English teacher named Lisa (Leslie Mann); you can practically see a world of comedic conflict unfolding involving juggled identities, etc. But then Drillbit tells his homeless buddies what he’s up to, saying that he gets away with it because all you have to do is carry a coffee cup and no one will question your authority. This of course leads to a few stupid and predictable moments where the other homeless men show up in the teachers’ lounge with coffee cups, and one of them somehow winds up substituting in a history class. It’s not terribly funny, and what’s more, it’s such an obvious sequence that Brill himself seems embarrassed by its inclusion, which is perhaps why the scenes flit by so haphazardly you wonder if they ever happened. But they did, and they shouldn’t have.
For what it’s worth, though, the cast includes an amazing number of comedians and friends who seem to have showed up just for the hell of it. Aside from the always-welcome Root, there’s a cameo from David Koechner, appearances by members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Beth Littleford, Cedric Yarbrough, and a few others. And the metareferences don’t stop there: Ryan sports a “Beavis and Butt-head” shirt at one point, a nod to co-writer Brown’s work on that show, and the high school itself is McKinley High, which is either a conscious shout-out to the high school in the Apatow-produced “Freaks and Geeks” or a phenomenal coincidence. Even “Freaks” alum Steve Bannos wanders across the screen for a few minutes. It’s as if the movie really just exists to give everyone one more reason to hang out and get paid.
Drillbit Taylor isn’t without its charms, even if every plot point is easy to spot. You know there’s going to be a confrontation with Filkins at the end, and you know Drillbit will somehow help out in a way that manages to both validate his friendship with the boys and complete his transformative arc from rascally bum to caring father figure, even as he lets the boys do enough of their own fighting to reclaim their fragile and burgeoning masculinity. This is the kind of role Wilson can play in his sleep now, and Hartley and Gentile are likeable kids who do an admirable job carrying the central storyline. I guess the best way to sum it up is to say that it’s not a terrible movie. But for a film with such a gifted comedic pedigree, that’s far from praise.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Feel Like I've Been Here Before
Film | March 21, 2008 | Comments ()