State and Main
Role Models / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | November 7, 2008 | Comments ()
David Wain’s Role Models is the perfect mix of the absurdist humor that’s defined his earlier work like “The State”/”Stella” or Wet Hot American Summer and a broader sensibility that fits more easily into the template of modern buddy comedies. For every dick or boob joke — and there are many — there’s a sarcastic aside or deadpan punch line that keeps the comedy quicker and more rewarding than something that just goes for the pratfalls. Wain walks the line between big and little with ease, turning out a genuinely and consistently hilarious comedy. What’s more, the film isn’t afraid to take a (slightly) deeper look at its characters and their motivations, sad though they may be. There’s a precise moment in Role Models where it turns from a crude comedy into a crude comedy with a heart and genuinely introspective soul, and what was just a decent movie becomes a good one. Danny (Paul Rudd), assigned to mentor an awkward teen, winds up having dinner with the kid and his parents and as such is forced to witness a lengthy and embarrassing conversation in which the boy is repeatedly mocked or derided by his supposedly loving caregivers. It winds up moving Danny to speak up on the kid’s behalf, and while he was probably going to get around to doing it anyway, Wain didn’t have to spend near the time he did in the scene or watching one sad kid’s home life come unraveled one slow dinner at a time. To do that took a certain level of bravery, and to keep the scene funny as well as resonant took skill. That’s what Role Models really is: An entertaining, gleeful, subversive, and ultimately sweet comedy that earns every warm moment as much as it does the laughs.
Danny and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are two typical guys in their 30s living at opposite ends of the spectrum: Danny hates his job and everything that his life has become, while the slightly younger Wheeler loves it because he never puts much thought into it. They’re pitchmen for Minotaur, an energy drink that they hawk at local schools in assemblies designed to encourage kids to stay off drugs. Danny privately calls the stuff poison, but Wheeler offers the straight-faced protest, “It’s not poison. It’s got juice in it.” It’s a small but funny line, and delivered well, which is the kind of thing to expect in a script from Wain, Rudd, Ken Marino (another member of the “State”/Wet Hot family) and Timothy Dowling (the short film George Lucas in Love). Stuck in his job for a decade, Danny is in such a rut that even his girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), comes to the conclusion that he’s a dick and breaks up with him. Dejected and completely over his job, Danny flips out during one of the school assemblies and afterward winds up driving the company Minotaur truck into a statue of the mascot. When Beth, a lawyer, barters Danny and Wheeler’s sentence down to community service, they’re shuttled off to the Sturdy Wings program, which is where the film really takes off.
Rudd and Scott are fantastic together, and their chemistry and humor play naturally off each other once the characters are ordered by the court to become temporary mentors. Wheeler is an amiable, horny guy, but he’s not stupid, and he and Danny riff effortlessly on their surroundings, the other mentors, and the unhinged woman who runs the organization, Gayle (Jane Lynch). And when Rudd isn’t playing the straight man, he’s killing with nothing more than gifted reaction takes built around a doubtful smirk, as when Gayle says her whole purpose at the center is to “service these young boys.” Wheeler is paired up with the 10-year-old Robbie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a completely wild kid who gets a lot of cheap comedy mileage out of swearing like a sailor and obsessing about breasts, but who’s still an energetic and mostly believable young actor. Danny, though, is paired with Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a loner who’s older than most of the other kids in the program and who lives for the moments when he can gather in the park with others like him and enact giant medieval battles in a live-action role-playing game (complete with costumes and foam weapons) and pretend to be the hero that always gets the girl. Just to make sure the point isn’t lost, Augie actually says he likes dressing up and fantasizing about dungeons and dragons because it allows him to pretend to be someone else. Like any great comedy, this one hangs on pain, and Augie’s social awkwardness becomes the pivot on which Danny begins to turn his life around and become, if not a great man, then at least a better one than he used to be.
The rest of the film follows Danny and Wheeler’s relationships with the boys, which start out reluctant but become something approximating genuine affection by the end. Rudd is predictably great at the role of disaffected post-slacker guy who awakens to the small joys of his own life, and he makes being funny look effortless. But that’s a given. Scott, though, is something of a surprise. He’s proven that he can do lesser comedies, but he more than holds his own with Rudd and the rest, turning in a performance that’s partly a caricature of the dumb guys he usually plays, though it’s his funniest one yet. And the rest of the cast is equally strong. Banks, sadly, doesn’t have a lot to do, but she’s still great as the go-to guy’s girl, both realistically pretty and completely intelligent and unwilling to put up with any crap. Wain also stacks the deck with improv alumni from his “State” days, including the fantastic Kerri Kenney-Silver as Augie’s mom and Marino as his stepdad, as well as Joe Lo Truglio as one of Augie’s battle buddies and Upright Citizens Brigade member Matt Walsh as one of the fantasy game’s bad guys. With talent like that just strolling around, it’s no wonder even the smaller scenes feel witty and sharp.
But the key to Role Models, and the thing that could help push Wain to a larger audience, is the solid story and the way it balances several brands of humor with a clear love for slightly offbeat language, as when Augie tells Danny that his role-playing league welcomes “early barbaric modalities.” The jokes are graphic and hilarious, but the story also finds its way to a good-natured and upbeat ending that’s the complete opposite of the ironic storytelling Wain demonstrated with Wet Hot American Summer. Some of the lines here are just as absurd, but the film is infinitely more real, and that gives it a nice emotional heft along with its wonderful sense of humor. Role Models is funny, sweet, subversive, and just plain good.
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.