Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, David Dorfman, Josh Peck, Danny McBride
Seth Rogen, Kristofor Brown
It always happens.
It happened to Adam Sandler.
It happened to Will Ferrell.
It happened to Ben Stiller.
Among filmmakers, it certainly happened to John Hughes.
What am I talking about?
Simple. The "formula" stops working. They're chugging along quite nicely on the gravy train when, suddenly, audiences just stop paying as much attention. What used to drive audiences wild and result in box-office smashes suddenly seems formulaic, predictable and, gasp, even lazy.
Has it happened to Judd Apatow?
After several smash hit films in a row, Apatow was initially humbled by late 2007's abysmal showing for John C. Reilly's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." Just four months later, Apatow produces another disappointingly unfunny outing with "Drillbit Taylor," starring Owen Wilson as a homeless man who gets hired to protect the geek trio of Wade (Nate Hartley, "Unfabulous"), Ryan (Troy Gentile, "Tenacious D: In the Pick of Destiny"), and Emmit (David Dorfman, "The Ring") from a beastly high school bully named Filkins (Alex Frost, "Elephant").
If the story sounds strangely familiar, think "My Bodyguard" times three.
Unfortunately, rather than the charm and sweet humor of "My Bodyguard," "Drillbit Taylor" ends up more like the awkwardly awful Project Greenlight winner "The Battle of Shaker Heights."
In all fairness, Judd Apatow isn't really to blame for the mediocrity of "Drillbit Taylor."
First, there's director Steven Brill ("Without a Paddle," "Mr. Deeds"), a blue-collar director who has made a decent career out of modestly entertaining, blue-collar comedies with Adam Sandler. Brill isn't so much a director as he is a cinematic wrangler...he takes over-the-top comedies and over-the-top comedians and weaves them together in a way that is, at some fundamental level, modestly entertaining.
Such an approach works with films like "Little Nicky" and "Without a Paddle." Such an approach is woefully inadequate in a film such as "Drillbit Taylor," a film that practically demands we sympathize with Drillbit and truly care about these three youths.
Unfortunately, neither connection ever occurs.
Owen Wilson, a gifted actor in the right role, deserves at least part of the blame here. While Wilson has that natural "puppy dog" look going for him, he's never quite mastered getting his vocal delivery to match the look. Too often, the result is a scene that looks sincere but sounds sarcastic.
A film like "Drillbit Taylor" practically depends on the believability of the relationships, and these relationships simply aren't believable. While Wilson certainly has his comic moments, especially in scenes with Leslie Mann as a lonely, loser-magnet teacher, not a single time did I find myself buying into Drillbit's increasing affection for these kids and their predicament.
The script, a cooperative effort by Seth Rogen, Kristofor Brown and Edmond Dantes (aka John Hughes), plays out like a prequel to "Superbad," with the three lead teens being almost frighteningly similar to that hit film's geek trio. This film, courtesy of its PG-13 rating, is tamer and considerably lamer than that high school raunchfest.
Despite its tameness, "Drillbit Taylor" is uncomfortably similar to "The Battle of Shaker Heights" in the way it almost gleefully approaches its increasing violence. Whereas "My Bodyguard," with Adam Baldwin and Chris Makepeace, focused itself more on the characters than the conflict it feels at times like "Drillbit Taylor" is simultaneously serving as primal therapy for screenwriters and/or a director with unresolved childhood issues. Alex Frost's Filkins, while completely and utterly convincing, is so completely psycho that even the worst principal would see through his antisocial personality disorder.
While it is certainly possible to play high school mischief and bullying for laughs, "Drillbit Taylor" goes beyond pranks into downright cruelty.
Could this have been funny? Perhaps, given a better script or a little effort from Owen Wilson. Unfortunately, it's not funny. It's mean-spirited and largely unnecessary.
Despite the unnecessary violence, uneven script and inadequate performance from Wilson, "Drillbit Taylor" actually has a few moments that seem to work.
The geek trio? While they're not up to the standards of the "Superbad" trio, they're up to par with Chris Makepeace's sullen nerd from "My Bodyguard."
As is true for virtually any Apatow-produced or directed flick, "Drillbit Taylor" features a garden-variety of supporting performances including nice turns by Stephen Root, as the principal, Apatow's wife Leslie Mann, Danny McBride and Josh Peck ("Mean Creek"). The aforementioned Adam Baldwin shows up in a cameo during the trio's bodyguard interviews along with Frank Whaley, while comedienne Lisa Lampanelli elicits laughs in her brief appearance.
With five films in the pipeline, three for 2008, it becomes hard not to wonder if Judd Apatow isn't stretching himself too thin. While the occasional "Knocked Up" or "Superbad" can be quite funny, is it really necessary to see ever so slight variatons on the same theme 3-5 times a year?
I think not.
While "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" was, largely owing to John C. Reilly, at least modestly entertaining, "Drillbit Taylor" is a lazy attempt to blend together the cinematic writings of Seth Rogen and John Hughes.
The result? The worst of Judd Apatow and Steven Brill.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic