by Jason Coffman
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David Wain’s previous feature films have been steadfastly non-commercial. Along with his frequent partners in crime from his days in The State, Wain has made some extremely divisive, challenging comedy. Wet Hot American Summer, his debut feature as director, managed the seemingly impossible trick of being a parody of and loving tribute to early 1980s summer camp sex comedies. Not too many people seemed to get the joke. His second feature, The Ten, was made up of ten interconnected short stories (sometimes very) loosely based on the Ten Commandments. The weird, surreal tone of both pictures seemed to doom them to cult notoriety.
So it was a huge surprise when the news got out that Wain’s next film would be produced by the Apatow comedy machine and star Wain regular Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott. And it would be released by Universal Pictures. Even weirder, the script would be an existing property, not an original by Wain and his cohorts (although by all accounts, they did heavy rewriting of the original screenplay by Timothy Dowling and W. Blake Herron). Not surprisingly, the end result is both very, very different from Wain’s previous films and absolutely hilarious.
Rudd and Scott star as Danny and Wheeler, representatives for Minotaur energy drink. They go from school to school, Wheeler dressed as a school mascot-styled Minotaur who urges kids to “Taste the Beast!” while Danny suggests they drink Minotaur instead of doing drugs. Unfortunately, Danny’s been working for Minotaur for 10 years, and has become completely jaded and hateful. His girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) finally dumps him after becoming fed up with his negativity, and Danny loses it. He tells an auditorium full of kids what he really thinks of life (and drugs), and manages to get himself and Wheeler arrested for a decent list of felonies in one fell swoop.
Beth, a lawyer, gets the judge to give Danny and Wheeler either 30 days in jail or 150 hours of community service in 30 days. They take the latter and are sent off to Sturdy Wings, a Big Brothers-style organization run by former alcoholic and drug addict Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch). Sweeny is immediately suspicious of the two and assigns them as “Bigs” to the organization’s most difficult “Littles”: Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a foul-mouthed son of a single mother who has run through eight “Bigs” in less than six weeks, and Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a teenager who spends most of his time with his Live Action Role Playing (LARP) group.
Even though the film is often predictable in its broad strokes (will these mismatched pairs become friends and teach each other life lessons? No fair guessing!), the film earns its laughs in making the specifics as funny as possible. Wheeler is a huge KISS fan and finds a way to connect with little hellion Ronnie through their mutual admiration for “boobies.” Danny gets roped by Augie into giving LARP combat a try. The characters in the LARP segments of the film are especially enjoyable, and not far removed from those seen in such recent documentaries on LARP as Darkon and Monster Camp. It’s to the film’s credit that LARPing comes across as both completely ridiculous and as a valid, constructive social outlet for Augie and his friends. Special mention must also be made of Jane Lynch, who is always very funny but who turns in what may be her most outrageous, hilarious role to date.
Role Models is easily David Wain’s most accessible film to date, but it’s also just as funny as The Ten or Wet Hot American Summer. There’s always been a streak of dirty adolescent humor running through his work; Role Models just brings that aspect to the surface and pushes the surreal, disturbing stuff out of the spotlight. However, Wain regulars and State alumni such as A.D. Miles, Joe Lo Truglio, Peter Salett, Ken Marino (as Jim Stansel!), and Kerry Kenney-Silver all make appearances, and Wain himself has a cameo, giving the film the same ensemble flavor as his previous work. While some fans of the less commercial aspects of Wain’s comedic stylings may be a little disappointed, Role Models is such cheerfully foul-mouthed infectious fun that it’s tough to find too much to complain about, and it’s easily one of the funniest films of the year.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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