WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Colleagues Danny and Wheeler are faced with a terrifying choice when Danny’s poor reaction to his break-up with girlfriend Beth lands them in trouble with the law: go to prison, or complete 150 hours of community service with kids in need of adult friends. The prospect of prison is unthinkable, but when the ‘Bigs’ meet their ‘Littles’, it starts to look like the less scary option.
Energy drink promoters Danny and Wheeler (Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott) may share a stage – Wheeler in a Minotaur outfit – an anti-drugs message and a ridiculous monster truck, but personality-wise they’re chalk and cheese. Wheeler’s a non-stop partying (yes, that’s a euphemism) dude, while Danny’s ten years in the job have turned him into a boring misanthrope. Lawyer girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) can take no more of Danny’s whinging (or his ill-thought-out marriage proposal) and ends the relationship, causing him to wrap the truck around a statue, with Wheeler implicated in the crime.
With Beth’s reluctant assistance, they’re given an option to avoid jail by enrolling on the ‘Sturdy Wings’ programme overseen by eccentric coordinator Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch); the programme involves the adults – ‘bigs’ – spending time with and notionally looking after youngsters – ‘littles’ – and how hard can it be to do that for 150 hours? Well, if the little is like Wheeler’s, a foul-mouthed kid with serious attitude called Ronnie (Bobb’e (?!) J. Thompson), or like Danny’s charge, nebbish live-roleplayer Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the answer is ‘very hard indeed’, though the clueless adults don’t exactly help themselves.
It might be an unimaginative PR trick to summarise any movie as ‘film x’ meets ‘film y’, but it’s practically irresistible to describe Role Models as The 40 Year-Old Virgin meets the American Pie series with a bit of Superbad thrown in. From The 40 Year-Old Virgin, we have Rudd playing downbeat and Lynch abusing her position of authority; from American Pie we have Scott’s slight variation on Stifler and a variation of Stifler’s younger brother in sex-obsessed Ronnie; and from Superbad we have Mintz-Plasse (easily the best thing about that film), Joe Lo Truglio hamming it up and a strange obsession with drawing penises.
Role Models’ four writers present a messy amalgamation of its forebears with results that are mostly predictable: it’s massively sweary, every expletive coming out of Thompson’s mouth making me die a little; it’s ridiculously broad, most notably in supporting characters such as A. D. Miles’ endlessly irritating ‘Big’ Martin and Augie’s dreadful mother and stepfather; and it’s unflinchingly sexist, with a regrettable objectification of women and, unsurprisingly, a few bare breasts. Though Banks plays the part brightly, Beth is particularly poorly served by a script which has her falling in and out of love with Danny for the flimsiest of reasons.
Yet while it always flirts heavily with crassness and unoriginality, Role Models miraculously comes up, for the most part, smelling of roses. The overall story arc is quite sweet – Ronnie teaches Wheeler to take responsibility for his actions, Augie teaches Danny to set his imagination free – and the interactions between the adults and the children feel natural and organic. Thompson manages to insert a sliver of vulnerability into a part that could easily have been repulsive, while Rudd and Scott collectively muster the presence of a leading man and Jane Lynch, in a relatively prominent role, balances deftly on the fringes of improvisation and indiscipline.
The main reason Role Models works, however, is because of Mintz-Plasse; his Augie is painfully shy in the real world, a noble, honest warrior in the role-playing realms of LAIRE*, and the viewer really feels for him as he struggles to woo the fair Esplen (Allie Stamler) and defeat haughty King Argotron (Ken Jeong). Like Danny, we start off laughing at Augie, his friends and his dress-up games; by the end, if we’re not quite slapping on the KISS make-up and charging into battle ourselves, we have warmed to all the lead characters.
It helps that the dialogue is full of sharp little gags: Augie’s speech about Marvin Hamlisch, Wheeler’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ confusion, Danny’s sour observations about the ridiculous names given to big cups of coffee, Ronnie consistently calling Danny ‘Ben Affleck’. Sure, these jokes are scattered between repetitive ‘I’m not reacting to that’ face-pulling and puerile, laddish nonsense; but if you ignore the stuff that’s meant to be funny, there’s a pretty funny film here.
Role Models advertises itself as a lewd, crude knockabout comedy for the lads, and in part that’s what you get. However, ultimately people didn’t love The 40 Year-Old Virgin because of its nudity or profanity; they loved it because there was a touching human story at its centre – alright, and some outrageously funny waxing. If Rudd, Scott, Thompson et al can’t quite match up to Steve Carell’s wonderful warmth, they can be thankful that Mintz-Plasse gives the film all the heart – and many of the laughs – it needs.
NOTES: I shared a flat with a live role-player for a while. I wouldn’t seek to generalise, but this particular gentleman’s fanatical devotion to his pastime came at the expense of most other things, specifically personal hygiene.