One day not too long ago, the everydude Paul Rudd woke up to find himself a crowd favorite. Never the main attraction in a comedy, Rudd – with his handsome, easygoing presence – has perfected the delivery of the straight man. It works best in the “40 Year Old Virgin,” in which Rudd serves up some fine low-key comic moments, like his “Know how I know you’re gay?” trade-off with Seth Rogen. (Best understated punchline: “You like Coldplay.”) Director Judd Apatow wisely made Rudd a hopeless romantic, who’s breakup drives him to debauchery with the gang. Yet Rudd’s more outrageous bits in that film, like his “box ‘o porn” delivery, proved too heavy-handed for his style. This outrageous material would be better served by the maniacal lead Steve Carell or zany sideman, Romany Malco (who’s still an untapped talent).
Now recognizable by packs of raunch comedy fans, Rudd has found himself a comic lead. Or, we should say, he paved his own way, helping to create the script of David Wain’s new, routine entry, “Role Models.” Like his buddy-in-goofiness Seth Rogen, Rudd just doesn’t take to the spotlight well. It’s as if these two performers cannot reveal enough to make their characters “round,” in the textbook story sense. And since we’re talking a failure on, oh, the middle school level, it’s clear that Rudd and Rogen just aren’t solid storytelling material.
But funny, they sure are – when behind a leading man. Yet, here Rudd shares the spotlight with another performer who misfires from the start. Seann William Scott – he who we once knew as Stifler – is truly a thing of the past, having grown stale before the Zen-nerd in “Pie” got down with his mom. These days Scott fills space in drek like “Mr. Woodcock”; needless to say, the round character is not his friend.
And there’s nothing to be done with these two in “Role Models,” which wants them to become inspirational by the closing credits. Rudd and Scott’s characters promote an energy drink to high schools under the guise of an anti-drug program. (If you’re smelling some timely satire here, think again – the writers apparently missed that lesson in middle school, too.) Soon Rudd senses a midlife crisis invading upon his grown-up adolescence, especially regarding his partner, who treats his costume-wearing job – as an armored minotaur – as the vehicle for a non-stop party lifestyle.
So Rudd rebels (to force the script toward a new act) and finds himself in trouble with the law after crashing his Red Bull-inspired truck. (The crash attempts a visual pun that sends yawns throughout the audience.) Just so happens that Rudd’s babe is a lawyer (Elizabeth Banks), and she stoically tries to help them out. But her help is dispassionate, for she had dumped Rudd after he proposed to her in an attempt to redeem his life. While Banks could liven up the most dreadful scenario, here she aims for sharp moralizing, though better suited as a charming comedienne. It’s as if the film’s script doctor had found a nurse who couldn’t revive the material.
In lieu of jail, Rudd and Scott get sentenced into the movie’s main comic device: they become “big brothers” or, in this film, “bigs” who are paired with “littles.” When all else fails, “Role Models” bets on adding kids, just like a dying sitcom in the 1980s. Scott gets Bobb’e J. Thompson, a foul-mouthed little terror who turns the carefree Stifler into a worry-wort. Rudd, however, gets a modern icon of anti-intelligence, McLovin himself (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Now a teenage sword-and-sorcery geek, Mintz-Plasse reenacts medieval times with an SCA-type organization (yes, there is a real thing, fake accents and all). Mintz-Plasse spouts off in a form similar to his “Superbad” style, this time motivated by insecurity as a misunderstood son. Meanwhile, Scott’s tyke shouts profanity like a Bad News Bear for plentiful cheap laughs in the audience. Glance into any classroom and you’ll find a handful of tykes who can ably curse.
If “Models’” comedy is a bore, the characters’ redemption is sheer agony – not to mention the shameless pop-cultural referencing that repeats like a bad taco. Another current comedy that borrows from Apatow is by Kevin Smith, who years ago brought the Tarantino-esqe post-mod allusions into the the land of the raunch. (Once Jay Mewes did Frank Booth in “Clerks,” there was no turning back.) Smith’s new meta-porno comedy recycles “Star Wars” (yes, for the umpteenth time), and director David Wain follows a similar suit in “Models.”
Scott has a pinball machine featuring a certain iconic 70s band, and sure enough the group’s image becomes an inspiration at the finale. Before that you’ll spot Wain, an uber-geek attempting to play guitar, who, along with Silent Bob, is the only big-timer shameless enough to dredge into such shallow iconography. I’ve been in the Kiss Army since first hearing “Destroyer” at age 13, and I can safely say that, Mr. Wain, you’ve gone too far.