ROLE MODELS is ragged around the edges and pretty threadbare in between. Co-writer Paul Rudd, sharing credit with a small army of fellow screenplayers, has a genuine gift for a sight gag, and there plenty popping up here. Alas, he falls short with all the stuff that links them together. Yet, for all its failings with a plot that travels a too well-worn path, a running joke about a bagel dog that was funny the first time despite Jane Lynch’s best efforts to keep it going, and sexual situations that evoke the worst of low-rent hormonal teen romps, the sight in a long shot of co-star Seann William Scott, buck naked and prone in the middle of a camp ground as small children and their mentors gingerly approach him in the soft golden glow of the early morning, is a wondrous bit of dada perfectly executed.
The title is, of course, ironic. Rudd and Scott are Danny and Wheeler, drones in the employ of an energy drink concern who ply their trade as shills for the product at school assemblies, using an anti-drug spiel as the thinnest of pretenses for their pitch. Wheeler is living the dream, dressing up in a minotaur costume, taking hits off a doobie between gigs, and otherwise meandering through a life of instant gratification of all types. Danny, however, the one in the suit extolling the virtues of an energy drink over controlled substances, is suffering a serious bout of the doldrums. His lack of a goal in life is weighing heavily on him, a state of mind that has him berating barristas, among others, with extreme prejudice. It drives his attorney girlfriend, Beth, (Elizabeth Banks) to move out, which only makes Danny’s doldrums worse. So much worse that an unfortunate bout of truth during a school assembly is followed by a fit of pique involving a tow truck, a police officer, and a statue of a horse. Danny and Wheeler find themselves ordered into community service to avoid jail and the service, for reasons that only make sense in the context of a wacky comedy, is with an outfit that pairs kids in need of guidance with responsible adults to mentor them.
The guys are paired with the most hopeless cases: Danny with Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse lisping his way into the nerd pantheon) an adolescent sporting both a cape and a duct tape-covered foam sword, Wheeler with Ronnie (a stunningly precocious Bobb’e J. Thompson), a dangerously hyperbolic younger kid with a small stature but a big, scary mouth who has been through eight mentors. They don’t hit it off, then they sort of bond, then they each make a boo-boo, then they each must redeem themselves, and, well, you get the drift. It’s a long way to go in order to get these four into unreasonable facsimiles of the costumes once sported by KISS, and the payoff isn’t much more than mildly interesting.
Rudd combines snarky and blasé in a winning fashion as he bonds with Augie, a kid that, like Danny, has been forced into the program. Rudd never quite moves beyond that combination, even while softening up to Augie’s obsession with a dungeons-and-dragons variety of real-life role playing in the park, finding much to admire in this outsider with a solid sense of himself. There are the deep philosophical ruminations about how he likes the >idea< of a soft drink more than the drink itself. There is the charming inability to get past an opening line and the ensuing very long, very awkward pause with his dream-girl. Scott is a fetching man-child with surprisingly astute insights into how to connect with Ronnie via the ci-mentioned KISS and a man-to-man about how to notice the secondary sexual characteristics of the female of the species without being obvious about it. Their relationship, unlike that of Danny and Augie, feels less like a plot contrivance than a bonding of peers. Lynch, a seasoned veteran of the Christopher Guest improv films, marries a deadpan ferocity and complete obtuseness as the founder and director of the mentoring program in which our heroes find themselves. The forceful way her character winds herself up with rambling, confessional/inspirational monologues that are remarkable for having absolutely nothing to do with any issue at hand is as loopy as it is indelible.
ROLE MODELS has an unexpected sweetness to it that builds to a fever pitch on several fields-of-honor, real, imagined, and legal. By the end, everyone has learned the necessary important life lesson, the audience has learned Renaissance slang for female gonads, and a solo song by Paul Rudd has brought everything to a close with a less than rousing finale. Along the way, it manages to pull itself together just long enough to deliver enough real belly laughs to make it worth seeing, but not worth making undue haste to do so.