Following in the footsteps of Kevin Smith, writer-director David Wain (The Ten) now reveals to the world that he, too, has come down with a case of Apatow Envy. Like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Wain’s latest comedy appropriates shamelessly from the Apatow canon. Raunch is mixed with romance. Potty-mouthed dialogue is interspersed with feel-good moments. Faces familiar from films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad are prominently on display. Apatow addicts looking for a fix of movie methadone will find Role Models higher-grade stuff than Zack and Miri, however. It has way more Apatow regulars. And it’s a ton funnier.
Apatow vet Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play Danny and Wheeler, thirtysomething boy-men who peddle an energy drink called Minotaur. Their job consists of driving a souped-up company truck from one public school to another and giving presentations to students, pushing their super-caffeinated beverage as a legal alternative to drugs. Rudd’s character, the pitchman, is so depressed by his life that he could down the stuff all day and still feel borderline suicidal. Scott’s character is his opposite in every way. He’s a party animal who thinks he’s got the sweetest job on Earth (and he’s the one who has to wear the fluffy half-man, half-bull outfit in public).
Early in the picture, there’s a defining scene that sets the tone superbly as the two drive to their first gig of the morning. “I just want to rock and roll all night,” Scott sings along blissfully to the radio. “And part of every day,” Rudd finishes. When informed that the lyric is actually “and party every day,” Rudd deadpans, “I can’t. I have errands. I can party from 2 to 3, possibly.”
Danny’s mood darkens further after he decides to shake things up by asking his girlfriend (Apatow vet Elizabeth Banks) to marry him, and she decides to shake things up by leaving him on account of his chronic negativity. Matters don’t improve when he goes berserk after the next school visit and smashes the monster truck into a statue, nearly running over a cop in the process.
Given the choice between prison and community service, the two men agree to act as mentors for a Big Brothers-type program called Sturdy Wings. The organization is the brainchild of a tattooed former coke fiend played with unhinged abandon by Apatow vet Jane Lynch. She assigns Wheeler to a gutter-mouthed 10-year-old named Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), whose behavior is so out of control that no previous mentor has lasted longer than a day. Within seconds of meeting his new “big,” Wheeler’s “little” loudly accuses him of attempting to violate him sexually.
Danny is paired with McLovin himself, Apatow vet Christopher Mintz-Plasse. He’s older now but — fear not — no wiser in the role of Augie, a 16-year-old whose home life is so dysfunctional he’s retreated into the world of Laire, a goofy flesh-and-blood variation on Dungeons & Dragons in which geeks of all ages gather for regular sessions of medieval role-playing. Rudd’s character scoffs at first, advising Augie, “People tend to avoid people in capes.” In point of fact, he scoffs his way through most of the rest of the movie. At the same time, Danny does come to care about his nerdy new friend, and eventually learns that standing up for the kid means discovering his own inner dork and picking up a cardboard sword himself.
You can pretty much fill in the rest from here: Characters who initially seemed to have zero in common will find common ground. The “bigs” wind up learning valuable life lessons from their “littles,” while the littles make life-changing breakthroughs as a result of finally receiving the male attention they’ve missed. More Apatow vets make appearances, too. Joe Lo Truglio (the weirdo who ran over Jonah Hill in Superbad) amuses as a weirdo in chainmail, and Ken Jeong (the gynecologist in Knocked Up) is a royal riot as Laire’s fey King Argotron.
Indeed, Wain’s latest is formulaic from first frame to last — but, as Roger Ebert correctly observed in his review, “A formula plot works if you’re laughing at the plot and not noticing the formula.” That, for the most part, is the case here. Rudd is in fine — if not tip-top — form. He and the rest of the talented cast keep the gags and one-liners flying so fast that the audience is unlikely to find itself with time to reflect on either the film’s familiar devices or the director’s liberal borrowing from another filmmaker’s work. In the end, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Apatow is the real role model here.