With a movie like Role Models, a critic always hopes that the preview trailer doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, it looks like just another flaccid scuzzbucket pseudo-comedy, but maybe it’ll surprise. Maybe it’ll be a Forgetting Sarah Marshall or 40-Year-Old Virgin—ribald, even raunchy, but with something more going for it. A rueful sweetness, maybe, or a disarming tinge of self-mockery to show that the people who made it had something on their minds besides their flipped-up sunglasses.
That hope dies early in Role Models, as the writers’ credits take the screen—five names strung together like a motley Mississippi chain gang, shackled together with ands and ampersands. For the remaining 97 minutes or so, the thought recurs unbidden, more incredulous every time: It took five people to write this?
The five are the movie’s star, Paul Rudd; director David Wain; supporting actor Ken Marino; Timothy Dowling, whose previous writing credits amount to two short films of eight and 12 minutes; and William Blake Herron. According to Writers Guild rules governing the use of “and” as opposed “&,” Rudd collaborated with Wain and Marino, but none of them worked with either Dowling or Herron. Nor did Dowling or Herron, both of whom receive story credit, work with each other.
The picture this paints is not pretty. It suggests that Herron concocted the story, and that Dowling tweaked the story and turned it into a script. It also suggests that Rudd, Wain and Marino then struggled to turn Dowling’s script into something they could take before the cameras and hope for the best. Judging from the result, it was a daunting task.
Danny Donahue, Rudd’s character, is discontented with his life because he’s 35 and spends his days touring public schools selling students on an energy drink called Minotaur as an alternative to illegal drugs. Danny’s pal Wheeler (Seann William Scott, playing his usual happy-go-lucky horndog) dresses up as the mythical beast and beats his chest while Danny makes his pitch. Danny’s discontent and self-loathing boil over after being dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), and he lands himself and Wheeler in jail on various charges. Beth, who is also an attorney, gets their sentence commuted to community service, and the boys are assigned to 150 hours with a youth-mentoring program called Sturdy Wings, run by a pugnacious ex-addict named Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch).
At Sturdy Wings, Danny is set up with Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a teenager who is into dressing up for a quasi-medieval role-playing game, while Wheeler is paired off with Ronnie Shields (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a preadolescent African-American who, between four-letter expletives, explains that he is into “boobies.” (This movie is a great believer in the infinite comic possibilities of a foulmouthed 10-year-old black kid.)
In its slapdash, haphazard way, Role Models pretends to deal with Danny and Wheeler’s process of growing up themselves. Or at least with snapping Danny out of his life-stinks-and-so-do-you funk—Wheeler has his moments of embryonic responsibility but, being played by Scott, he remains pretty much a priapic overgrown kid throughout.
The whole thing culminates in a battle staged in a park by Augie’s combat-game group L.A.I.R.E., which stands for Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Explorers (it looks like a movie mock-up of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but oddly enough it’s a real group and may have provided the movie with a cheap source of extras). Danny misses his final court date to attend the battle—exactly as it would happen in real life, no doubt—and the climax reunites the entire cast whether it makes sense that they would be there or not, just to try to tie everything off neatly.
Sorry, guys, it’s way too late for that. While Role Models provides its fitful laughs, neatness is not among its virtues. An audience’s response will depend on whether they’re more disappointed that it isn’t better, or more relieved that it isn’t as bad as it might have been.
But whether you’re a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person, the bottom line is you’re still getting only half a glass.