Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Undesirable Sandwich Combinations

Role Models
DVD via Redbox

I saw Role Models a few weeks ago, just after I Love You, Man, and the contrast was so unflattering that I was left without much to say about the earlier Paul Rudd vehicle. By rights, Role Models ought to take its place among the new classics given the combination of talents on display -- Rudd, Chris Mintz-Plasse from Superbad, Jane Lynch, big huge chunks of "The State," Stifler already -- but as it turns out, it's an ineffective and draggy blend of styles that don't complement. David Wain, who directed one of my favorite unseen comedies ever (Wet Hot American Summer, with Rudd and many others who reappear here), has a particular absurdist style. His jokes often depend on odd mid-sentence shifts in theme, lists of three subjects where the second one is the punchline and the third makes no sense at all, or actors speaking out of character and trampling over the fourth wall.

In short Wain excels in scripted comedy, the sort where every syllable and preposition is sweated over to equal maximum funny. The screenplay he wrote with Rudd and Ken Marino for Role Models was clearly full of the sort of weird humor that made Wet Hot and TV's "Stella" such memorable, love-them-or-hate-them propositions. You can hear some of the original jokes in the movie, but they don't land, because the tone is borrowed from Judd Apatow and thereby most scenes are slack in pace. One of things that made Wain (and Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio, and Kerri Kenney) so funny on "The State" was the gonzo, postmodern editing style, which undercut funny lines and directed attention to things that at first airing didn't seem to be jokes at all. Wet Hot American Summer, one of the most knowingly deliberately badly made movies ever, gorged on the vine with this sort of stuff.

Role Models doesn't work because the critical spirit of the filmmaker gets lost in all of the agreeable improvisations and shaggy-dog scenes. If you mostly improvise a movie, it's just not going to come across as satire. Knocked Up might have a lot of naughty language, but it's undeniably a romantic comedy, and one with pretty conservative values at heart. Ditto 40-Year-Old Virgin. The difference is, Apatow and Seth Rogen aren't conflicted about making mainstream romantic comedies. In a way they're remaking the comfortable favorites of yore, in the same fashion that Kevin Smith "crafted" Mallrats as the symbol of his willingness to make mainstream teen fare of the John Hughes school. But David Wain isn't a genial midwestern (or Canadian) everyman, he's an odd duck, an NYC intellectual whose work can often be genuinely disturbing (the not entirely successful The Ten, also with Rudd, is a much more honest expression of his style).

So Role Models, with the budget of Wet Hot American and made before Steve Carell became a massive box-office draw, could have been a really great, and really creepy, dark comedy. As it is it has the right lead, Rudd doing his guy-who-has-everything-and-hates-everything bit, some cute kids (Mintz-Plasse shows some range, he plays younger and less spazzy), and some great lines for Seann William Scott. Scott is an interesting case here; I don't think he can improvise, and as a result it often seems like he's in a completely different movie than everyone else. His scenes with Rudd don't work at all, because they're just not on the same wavelength. But paired with Bobb'e J. Thompson, who plays his little buddy, he's absolutely hilarious. By contrast a lot of Wain's buddies, including Marino, Kenney, Ken Jeong, and A.D. Miles, get long ad lib scenes that simply... aren't... funny. Lynch does her bit as the completely terrifying matron in charge of the charity Rudd and Scott's characters are forced to work for, but she gets a little too much screen time and the screenplay doesn't know what to do with her at the end.

Likewise, what's to be made of all the live-action role-playing? Everyone on the cast and crew seems to be taking care to show respect for the Mintz-Plasse character's obsession, but too much so -- I mean, we are supposed to be laughing at them. They just sort of go about their business and it's not really funny or interesting. Compared to the "Home Movies" episode set at the Renaissance fair, Wain finds no funny characters or scenes in this major chunk of the film. I guess it's cool for LARP people that their hobby is being so well-represented on film; for those of us who think it's kind of silly and pointless, Role Models is not going to win any converts.

One of the many things that doesn't land right in this film bothered me in particular seeing as how soon I saw it after I Love You, Man, which included as a major subplot a funny and appropriate riff on the band Rush. Scott's character in Role Models is supposed to be a major KISS fan. He even has the pinball machine. But when the central foursome inevitably dress up as KISS at the climax, Scott gets stuck with the Ace Frehley makeup. Come on!

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