Movie Review: Drillbit Taylor v.f.
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
We can't go back to the dear old movie bullies of yesteryear. It's too late. The world is now officially more dangerous and violent teens aren't much of a punch line. The new Owen Wilson vehicle "Drillbit Taylor" knows this. The film's eerily unfunny antagonist skulks around in a hooded sweatshirt, looking like one of the Columbine perps - as much as it's possible to do so and still exist inside some sort of comedy, albeit a queasy and increasingly grim one.
"Drillbit Taylor" makes last summer's very funny "Superbad" look even better in retrospect. In that film, the three marvelously contrasting teen geeks played by Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse were fully themselves and, at their best, fully hilarious. They didn't need to prove to anyone they could take a punch, or re-enact scenes from "My Bodyguard"; their primary transgressions were trying to grow up too quickly and talking a faster game than they could play. Judd Apatow produced "Superbad," coming off the huge success of his even bigger hit "Knocked Up," and together those films told a more or less continuous story about boy-men learning to become less the boy and more the man.
"Drillbit Taylor" drags us back to an earlier era of harshly delineated cliques and fierce, hollow calculation, reminiscent of the well-liked 1980s John Hughes films. I must tread carefully here: I know many people adore his films. (I do like "Sixteen Candles.") But something about the nerds-versus-psychopathic-bully premise of "Drillbit Taylor" is off from the beginning: This old thing again? And while screenwriters Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen, along with director Steven Brill, must take the lion's share of the blame, the story credit is shared by Edmond Dantes, a pseudonym for none other than ... John Hughes.
It's the first day of high school for 14-year-old chubster Ryan (Tory Gentile), who apparently spent the last six months watching Jonah Hill in "Superbad." His best friend is Wade (Nate Hartley), whose beanpole physique is topped by about 10 pounds of wavy hair. The second they get to school, they see the super-duper-uber-dork Emmit (David Dorfman) getting shoved inside a locker by the thuggish Filkins (Alex Frost) and his No. 1 droog (Josh Peck). The rageful punks announce their intention to make life unpleasant for our nominal heroes.
Then, in from some other movie, strolls Drillbit, a homeless Army deserter with a sunny attitude. The plot engineers Drillbit into position so he can become the boys' bodyguard at school. Everyone thinks he's a substitute, including the pliable English teacher played by Leslie Mann. She's fine here, but anyone could've done this role, whereas in "Knocked Up" Mann made the idea of anyone else in her role an unthinkable prospect.
After the sixth or seventh scene of not-funny physical violence, the movie gets down to the business of arranging payback and getting the audience to root for the sociopaths to really get it. The final smackdown is more wince-worthy than laugh-getting. If it weren't for Owen Wilson, ol' reliable when it comes to taking the strain off material that's trying too hard, I would've wanted outta there bad. Wilson scores a few laughs, but director Brill keeps ramming the camera too close to the action. Think that's a minor issue? Pal, putting the camera in the right place is one of the key tenets of film comedy. When you have slapstick violence that isn't clever to begin with, and then you body-slam it visually, you're in trouble. Or else you're in an Adam Sandler picture, two of which ("Little Nicky" and "Mr. Deeds") Brill directed.
"Superbad" got a deserved R rating for its unmitigated and gleeful raunch. "Drillbit Taylor" is cleaner in mouth but far uglier in spirit. Wilson and Mann do what they can to tone it up, but their scenes belong to a different film, and a fresher one.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity).
Running time: 1:42
Starring: Owen Wilson (Drillbit Taylor); Leslie Mann (Lisa); Troy Gentile (Ryan); Nate Hartley (Wade); David Dorfman (Emmit); Alex Frost (Filkins); Josh Peck (Ronnie)
Directed by Steven Brill; written by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen; photographed by Fred Murphy; edited by Thomas J. Nordberg; music by Christophe Beck; production design by Jackson DeGovia; produced by Judd Apatow, Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth. A Paramount Pictures release.