19 November 2008

At the movies: Role Models.

Director/co-writer David Wain, responsible for Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten, and a founding member of sketch comedy godhead The State, has exactly the right approach for the material. The story outline of the film sounds like something we as the audience feel that we’ve already seen at some point, so he and the cast make a point of changing things up; going for character-based comedy rather than pratfalls and visual puns.

Paul Rudd has been the go-to guy for supporting greatness in comedies for several years now, and he steps up to the lead with a hard-won sense of timing. He could have vaulted up into superstardom after 1995’s Clueless, where he actually served as a funny romantic lead, but instead worked his way up through riff-y supporting roles over the intervening years in Wain’s previous two films and much of comedy multihyphenate Judd Apatow’s recent work. So he brings to the film an absolute absence of vanity and a willingness to shun traditional likability, and it pays up immensely. It’s rare that we get this kind of emotional complexity in a comic lead. Seann William Scott’s Wheeler could have easily been Stifler Part II, but instead we’re given a libidinous partyboy who has achieved an almost Zenlike state of being. All that jock/fratboy energy that poisoned his American Pie character here becomes liberatingly sleazy, and he rebounds from Southland Tales into something a bit different for him. I would never have said that KISS embodied a philosophy before, but now, after viewing this film, I’m not sure I can be so certain.

The two kids that Danny and Wheeler find themselves mentoring get huge laughs just through course of action. Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse a/k/a McLovin from Superbad) is a Live Action Role-Playing enthusiast who rejects much of the awkwardness in which he finds himself, and Ronnie (Bobb’e Johnson, finding new ground to explore in the ‘foul-mouthed child’ archetype) has abandonment issues and delights in burning through assigned mentors. The always-great Jane Lynch pops up periodically as the chief administrator of Sturdy Wings program, and most of the time she’s brilliant, though occasionally she’ll hammer away at a line for longer than necessary. Who would have thought that 2008 was going to be the year that Elizabeth Banks became gloriously inescapable? With this, she gives her third great performance of the year (complementing both Zack and Miri Make a Porno and her well-drawn Laura Bush in W.), taking a small character and making it feel like more.

Role Models is an exceptionally satisfying comedy, but one that does so in unexpected ways. Brazenly filthy but also disarmingly sweet, we have here the first date movie/dude movie hybrid of the season.

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