Paul Rudd wears the constant look of glazed-eye amusement; everything seems to tickle him, even that which annoys or frustrates or disappoints him. He’s frat-boy handsome, and therefore almost anonymous when he stands in a movie-star lineup; in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2003), Rudd received a supposedly extreme makeover and came out the other end looking unaltered. But Rudd is an effortless comedian—deadpan, quick but not glib, never eager to please—whose signature moves (a grimace, a grin, a tilt of the head and a muttered one-liner that always sounds improvised) have been honed to perfection during his collaborations with Judd Apatow, who cast Rudd in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and who audiences will likely think wrote, produced, and/or directed Rudd’s latest, Role Models, as well.
But, no, Role Models is the brainchild of writers David Wain and Ken Marino, both of the almost-deserving-of-its-cult-status comedy troupe The State, and Rudd himself (who shares screenplay credit). Wain (who also directed and cameos) and Marino (who co-stars) were the first to recognize and utilize Rudd’s mannerisms when they cast That Guy From Clueless in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, a rather odd decision to parody Meatballs. Then, last year, Wain and Marino called on Rudd’s services again for the episodic, hit-and-miss The Ten (in which he played an adulterous narrator) and Diggers, Marino’s soft-focus autobiography recast as a 1970s-set dramedy, in which Rudd proved himself capable of going deep when need be.
Their partnership has evolved nicely, even profoundly, if that’s the right word for a movie in which a little kid says of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss, “I didn’t know Jews could sing like that.” With Role Models, the twitching ironic wink of WHAS that gave way to Diggers‘ heart-sleeve sincerity has settled into a firm middle ground, where Smart-Ass Laughs play off Sincere Moments of Affection. And the climactic showdown, straight out of the recent documentary about the live-action role-playing game Darkon, gives Role Models just the proper—nay, sir, heroic!—amount of dork.
In every way, this is just another formulaic romp about two selfish slackers getting their priorities rearranged by a couple of kids—instead of breaking new ground, it polishes it with sandpaper. As reps for an energy-drink company, Rudd and Seann William Scott are going nowhere—except to the schools where they pitch their product’s buzz as an acceptable substitute for illegal drugs. Wheeler (Scott) loves the gig, despite the Minotaur costume in which he does his five shows daily for smart-ass kids who wonder if he got the cow outfit at the gay zoo. Wheeler is the sad, stunted Stifler, if he grew up to become a soft-drink company’s peddling Plushie.
Then company suit and spokesman Danny (Rudd) chooses the occasion of his breakup with longtime girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo) to sabotage their slacker gigs by running their monster truck up a school’s statuary. For that crime of stupidity (among others), Wheeler and Danny are offered a choice: go to jail for a month or mentor two boys in a Big Brothers–type organization called Sturdy Wings, run by a rather unsteady former coke whore played by Jane Lynch. The Sturdy Wings logo makes for a rather subtle sight gag: When splayed across a woman’s T-shirt, the wings resemble hands wrapped around breasts. Indeed, there is no shortage of booby humor here: booby jokes, booby-spotting advice, and even boobies themselves. (Admit it: “Booby” is one hilarious word.)
Wheeler gets paired with 12-year-old Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a self-proclaimed “booby man” who says “fuck” every time he exhales. The son of a single mother, Ronnie’s less a brat than a brawler trying to fend off guys who choose fathering over jail time—some role models. And just when Ronnie’s mini–Eddie Murphy routine starts to grow stale, he’s reinvented yet again as a Kiss fan! Danny, meanwhile, finds himself stuck with McLovin’, which is to say Augie, played by Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who last year starred in a phony public-service announcement in which he was warned of his pending doom as a typecast nebbish. Augie, though, is the geek who has no delusions of being cool; all he wants is to disappear into his medieval role-playing game, where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a cape and bow before a burger-joint king (played by Knocked Up gynecologist Ken Jeong).
Of course, the inevitable transpires: Men who’ve behaved like boys begin acting their age, and boys who’ve been left to fend for themselves stop acting out. It’s been the plot of every other Adam Sandler movie—potty humor gets a hug. (Coincidentally or not, the poster for Role Models, in which Rudd’s pissing on a brick wall, is almost identical to the one for Sandler’s Big Daddy.) But Wain, Marino, and Rudd pull it off because theirs is a funnier, brainier, bawdier brand of feel-good . . . and because you can never go wrong with a climactic, foam-padded sword fight set to Kiss.