Role Models looks like another of those comedies about boorish males that threaten to turn American cineplexes into frat houses or romper rooms. Critics don’t fight this Judd Apatow contagion because its symptoms (loud laughs and big box-office) suggest a cultural juggernaut. The New Yorker’s attempt to turn Knocked Up into a modern avatar of romantic comedy was unconvincing when the real issue in these films (from Old School to Superbad) is the crisis of masculine authority. (That’s partly why the mainstream press can’t accept Oliver Stone’s W.) The post-boomer generation has been flummoxed by its unearned adolescent privileges. Stuck crashing weddings—a degraded metaphor for what used to be called rebellion—they have a difficult time articulating their own principles. Hollywood hasn’t helped by catering to this immaturity, but Role Models flips that script.
Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) reverse the genre’s expected celebration of crudeness. Introduced as spokesmen for Minotaur Energy Drink, Danny drives the company’s custom Jeep to countless California high schools where he does a promotional pitch in front of sequestered students while Wheeler prances beside him wearing a clownish bull costume. By wrecking the Jeep and losing their inherently humiliating, infantilizing jobs, these white, scruffy guy-guys go on to something better. Unwillingly and under court order, Danny and Wheeler are forced to do community service at Sturdy Wings, a Big Brother–style agency where they mentor a fatherless black kid, foul-mouthed Ronnie Shields (Bobb’e J. Thompson), and a disaffected white kid, adenoidal Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Taking a page from Adam Sandler’s playbook (the ad campaign cleverly riffs on Sandler’s Big Daddy public urination trope), Role Models goes for heart over Apatow rudeness. The scene where Danny infuriates his fiancée (Elizabeth Banks) establishes his need to man-up—and not as a motivation for rom-com. Instead of coddling obtuse behavior, Role Models humorously works through Danny’s tantrums and Wheeler’s mischief. Not Bad Santas, Danny and Wheeler reject that obscene retread of outdated “subversiveness” and its implicit gender selfishness. They realize the special needs boys have for encouragement, camaraderie and example. Ronnie and Augie don’t become straight-A Boy Scouts, but Danny and Wheeler help socialize them.
You could call this a redemption plot, but it’s actually about acceptance. Buddyhood teaches Danny and Wheeler that being better men means showing concern for others.
Excuse me for laying out Role Models’ virtues so crudely, but these ideas are at risk in contemporary culture: for example, Knocked Up sentimentalized procreation; Anchorman made professionalism juvenile; Superbad made childishness hip-maudlin; Pineapple Express made camaraderie absurd; and Zack and Miri made sexuality crude. But Role Models importantly dramatizes Danny and Wheeler’s social responsibility as their personal obligation.
Role Models accomplishes a small miracle—which has a legacy. Directed by David Wain, who co-wrote the script with Rudd, Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling, Role Models recalls virtues from last year’s appealing revue comedy The Ten and the genuinely moving drama Diggers. Through extremes of comic absurdity and sensitive melodrama, both films portrayed men coping with social conventions and individual identity. One of this team’s more significant creations is Sturdy Wings’ director, Sweeney (Jane Lynch), who orients Danny and Wheeler into the roles of “Bigs” guiding “Littles;” it compresses the mentor/disciple relationship into a model of action and its social effect. She dares/threatens them to mature into the friendly exemplars their differently challenged young charges require. Sweeney’s character throws a curveball into the rom-com/slob-com game making it more significant, more credible, than Apatow’s sitcom indulgence.
Wain, Rudd and Marino previously worked together in the comedy troupe Stella. I don’t get their cult film Wet Hot American Summer but admire that they draw amusement from common behavior. Better than preppie smugness, or Saturday Night Live clique-humor, they satirize the American male inner life. Role Models’ Men-to-Boys concept finds its heart in the ways young men desperately go wanting for masculine ideals. Danny and Wheeler’s disconnect over Kiss lyrics reflects Ronnie and Augie’s own boyish solipsisms: sex and Dungeons-and-Dragons. Their private worlds are parodied with light pathos and perfect silliness, converging into a renaissance-fair battle near a fast food joint. When the medieval king (Ken Jeong) tells Danny, “Exit my Burger Hole, boy!” it balances puberty with homosocial satire.
While mocking adolescent male escapism, Wain and co. touch on genuine moral abhorrence about the grind of labor as felt by Danny and Wheeler, two working-class almost-rebels. It’s why they punch each other affectionately and helps them distinguish between being co-workers and friends. That reality simply doesn’t appear in Apatow’s middle-class jokes. Ken Marino acted this class crisis beautifully as the dissatisfied young worker/father in Diggers; it’s a bonus when Marino shows up here daring a parody of macho dumbness. The same authenticity is apparent in Seann William Scott’s best-yet characterization as dedicated sybarite Wheeler. He also grows toward manhood.
Paul Rudd gets his best-yet starring part after traversing the lows and highs of contemporary comedy, from Apatow and Neil LaBute to the richness of Diggers and Role Models. How he does it—bringing bliss even to lousy material like Forgetting Sarah Marshall—is a mystery. Rudd alternates charm and honesty the way Joel McCrea once did, which is probably the gentlemanly secret propelling Role Models. Despite that mutinous smirk, the sparkle in Rudd’s eyes speaks sincerity. He confirms that good movies do more than pander to louts or flatter patriarchy’s ego. Role Models’ sweeter, more mature perspective on manhood and people-hood avoids the Apatow curse.
Directed by David Wain, Running Time: 99 min.
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