Role Models is what you'd call half of an awesome movie. As cynical a soul as I am, I was relieved by the fresh start the flick got off to, impressed by its smarmy charm and unconventional attitude. But like Linus and his blanket, Role Models reveals itself to be hopelessly tethered to a sense of routine. It's doubly disappointing to see a comedy that pushes its subject matter to the brink of edginess, only to scurry back to its comfort zone with its tail between its legs.
Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are your basic pair of prototypical slackers. The latter loves his job as an energy-drink mascot, but Danny has come to the stunning realization that he's pretty much done squat with his life. Unfortunately, the day he decides to change things is the day he and Wheeler cause a scene that ends with them facing a month in jail. Luckily, Danny's long-suffering lawyer girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) has wrangled them a more manageable sentence: 150 hours of service with the Big Brothersesque organization Sturdy Wings. The sarcastic Danny finds himself mentoring a fantasy role-playing fanatic (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), while party guy Wheeler is matched with the world's most foul-mouthed ten-year-old (Bobb'e J. Thompson). Despite some awkward beginnings, the guys come to enjoy hanging out with the kids, eventually learning that they're not the only ones who have a little growing up to do.
The idea behind Role Models isn't exactly earth-shatteringly original: a couple of curmudgeons have their hearts warmed by some rambunctious kids. The only real change here is that the leads are bitter thirtysomethings instead of — well — bitter fortysomethings. But for a little while, it looked as if Role Models wasn't going to be a complete slave to convention, or at least make the predictable turn of events easier to swallow. For the film's first handful of scenes, director David Wain and company gleefully give their collective finger to the sort of hackneyed tale they use as the story's foundation. Everyone in the cast seems to be channeling Billy Bob Thornton (pick a role), imbuing the proceedings with a smart-mouthed quality that, in turn, makes the movie a whole lot funnier. Such a spirit runs rampant throughout the first half of Role Models, and I had looked forward to seeing it close on as equally anarchistic a note.
Unfortunately, just as with this past summer's Hancock, it's not long before Role Models wusses out and becomes the corny, feel-good dreck it tried so hard not to turn into. The climactic sequence in particular is one giant game of "connect the cliches," a messy denouement in which everything miraculously turns out alright for the characters. Not even the randy spirit Role Models embraced for so long is around to give things a sarcastic twist.
Plus, the jokes tend to take their cues from the Will Ferrell School of Random Humor. The actors swear up a storm here, which works some of the time (Rudd is a slice of smarmy gold) but falls flat even more (you'll get tired of Thompson's character really fast). It's a shame, since Rudd and Scott make for a solid duo, which gives me hope that they'll team up in another, better project someday. In the meantime, Banks sleepwalks through her part, Jane Lynch plays the ex-junkie founder of Sturdy Wings, and while Mintz-Plasse doesn't do McLovin all over again, his character is similarly dorky.
I'm hesitant to recommend Role Models, for while I didn't really like it, there are some moments here more hilarious than entire movies have been. I didn't care for the boilerplate finale, but I have a feeling other viewers won't mind so much. In any case, individual parts of Role Models are better than their sum, a film best seen on DVD, when the ability to fast-forward to the good stuff is just one click away.