This is the second weekend in a row where I've seen a movie that climaxed with rich suburban kids having underground fights with each other. Either I'm completely out of the loop with kids these days, or Hollywood is trying to speak to some kind of unspoken youth demographic that gravitates to beating the crap out of each other. The difference between the two films is that last weekend's Never Back Down was goofy enough to work as unintentional comedy. Drillbit Taylor, an intentional comedy, tries to go for humor and winds up with fewer laughs. You figure it out.
A funny thing happened as I was doing some on line research on this film. One of the people credited for the story is an "Edmond Dantes", which is actually a pen name for filmmaker John Hughes. Anyone who grew up in the 80s remembers John Hughes, and his teen focused comedies such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. Apparently, this is a project that's been lying around the studio since Hughes' height of success about 20 years ago. It was handed off to successful comedy filmmaker, Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), to produce, who in turn turned to screenwriters Seth Rogen (Superbad) and Kristofor Brown (TV's Beavis and Butthead) to punch up the material. If only Rogen and Brown had followed Hughes' style of semi-realistic teenagers with dialogue that was genuinely funny and clever. This movie doesn't know how teenagers act, and treats every adult character as if they had the I.Q.s of rocks.
The plot is a simple one that focuses on two lifelong best friends who make a lot of mistakes on their first day of high school. Scrawny Wade (Nate Hartley) and overweight Ryan (Troy Gentile from Nacho Libre) show up to school wearing the same shirts, and then they make the unwise decision to stand up for the school's main geek, Emmitt (David Dorfman, best known for playing Naomi Watts' son in The Ring films). This immediately puts them on the hit list of the two most sadistic bullies in school, Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck). Fearing for their lives, and getting no sympathy or support from any adult authority figure, the three kids place an on line ad for a personal bodyguard willing to work for under $100. The only one willing to accept their offer is a guy who goes by the name of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless beach bum who claims to have military training, and will teach the kids how to stand up against their tormentors. Of course, he has intentions of his own, as he plans to rob the kids blind behind their backs and use their money so he can go to Canada and start a new life. But, the more time he spends with them, he begins to like and respect them. Before anyone knows it, he's passing himself off as a substitute teacher so he can keep a constant watch over them. And in the world of this movie, passing yourself off as a teacher is as easy as walking through the front door with a suit and tie, and hanging out in the teacher's lounge.
Drillbit Taylor is a movie that doesn't just stretch the boundaries of believability. It mangles it, chops it into pieces, buries it in the ground, and then spits on its grave. The movie seems to know that a lot of its ideas are far-fetched, so it's forced to make most of the characters incredibly stupid in order for it to work. Take the whole substitute teacher thing I just mentioned. We never buy this subplot for a second, because we're supposed to believe that the Principal of the school and the entire staff will simply let anyone walk in off the street and start teaching, no questions asked. I know it's a comedy, and I'm not supposed to be questioning it, but with school security being what it is today, the movie is asking too much for its audience to buy such a lapse in logic. Further signs of idiocy on the part of the adult cast: No one believes the three kids when they try to tell them about the bullies, not even when the kids are chased down the street by the head bully's car, smashing mailboxes and running over people's lawns as he goes. The adults go on blissfully unaware, thinking that their tormentor is a Golden Boy for no reason. They have no reason to think the way they do, other than the movie would be over in about 10 minutes if anyone had half a brain. I started to feel sorry for the kids, not because of their bully problem, but because there was not a single semi-intelligent adult around them.
The kids themselves are not really written as geeks or nerds to begin with. They're written as broad characters and cliches, but not as individual characters. There's one kid that's too skinny and wears glasses, there's one kid who's fat, and then there's another kid who apparently is heavy into musical theater, as evidenced by the T-shirts he wears. We're supposed to fill in the blanks from there, since they spend most of their time arguing with each other and getting beat up, rather than getting memorable dialogue or creating characters. The movie never seems to fall upon a genuine reason for us to care about them. There is an attempt to humanize one of the main characters, concerning a subplot where young Wade tries to slowly get the attention of a girl at school (Valerie Tian from Juno), but their relationship never really goes anywhere, nor does the plot itself with the way the movie drops and picks it up at random. Not even the relationship that's supposed to build between Drillbit and the boys generates much emotion. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Owen Wilson's heart doesn't even seem to be in the material in the first place. Wilson's comic act is usually pretty quiet and laid back, but here, he seems so distanced from the material that he's practically not there. He is supposed to be a redemptive character who has a change of heart thanks to these kids putting their trust in him, and the relationship he starts with a teacher at school (Leslie Mann). The thing is, he still seemed like the same guy to me when the end credits rolled. I had to wonder what he had truly learned, other than how to scam an entire school into thinking he's a teacher.
It's been a few hours since my screening got out, and I'm still trying to figure out just who the movie was supposed to be focused on. Despite the title, a good part of the movie forces the kids to act on their own without Drillbit's aid. And when Drillbit takes center stage, his scenes seem to focus more on his personal relationship than with his time with the kids. This is a muddled and uncertain movie, and you have to wonder if the screenwriters were fighting a losing battle here. This is a movie that did not have a lot of heart or thought put into it. There's just an overall assembly line feel to this movie. The direction by Steven Brill (Without a Paddle, Little Nicky) is dull and pedestrian, and the jokes often wind up falling flat. All this, and I haven't even mentioned the film's severe and numerous switches in tone. The movie can go from a goofy farce, to a sentimental teen movie, to a ridiculously violent fight movie that glorifies violence in the span of five minutes. To say that the film is a total mess would be an understatement.
Drillbit Taylor is a movie that was made by very funny people, who will certainly be funny again. There's a lot of talent on display here, but if no one's heart is in it, there's no reason for the audience to care. If anything, I think this movie signals that Apatow and company have been to the "freaks and geeks" well one too many times, and the strain is starting to show. They need some fresh material, and a fresh start. Drillbit Taylor plays like lukewarm leftovers of last summer's far superior Superbad.
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