Upon seeing the cast list and press for Role Models it would not be unfair to make any number of assumptions about the likely narrative and strain of comedy to expect from the film. The guy in a rut/quarter-life crisis, working in “some brainless job, no goals, no ambition” who in a chance encounter finds the foundations of his cushioned life shaken into adulthood. Along the way the charming protagonist encounters some hilarious and likely crude scenarios only to be met with a final pivotal choice of action which inevitably will result in him proving his new worth, whilst simultaneously teaching the self-righteous grown-ups around him to remember their own child within — cue kiss, funky music, and credits.
Role Models follows the story of Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Sean William Scott) whose simple yet unsatisfying lives selling energy drinks to children are disrupted when Danny loses his girlfriend and momentarily his mind, damaging the property of a client school. Danny’s now ex-girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) is a lawyer who manages to keep them out of jail on the condition that they each carry out 150 hours of community service with the mentoring program Sturdy Wings, run by intense ex-addict Sweeny (Jane Lynch).
Assigned the two most difficult cases within the program — foul-mouthed ten-year-old Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson) and nerdy teen Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — both Danny and Wheeler work through their own hang-ups, and various outlandish scenarios to eventually give confidence to Augie, break through to the softer side of Ronnie, gain respect from Sweeny, and, of course, win Beth back for Danny. Also using many of the Frat Pack thespian discoveries, Role Models does slide comfortably in alongside the numerous R-rated comedies which have kept so many of us chortling for around ten years now. But is it possible that its title references a new self-reflexive understanding of film's responsibility in popular culture (dare I mention that word ‘responsibility’ — the monster of so many Frat Pack flicks of the noughties?). In producing a film about Role Models is its team stating an attitude to the throne they now sit on?
To answer or even ask these questions suggests that the likes of director David Wain, the team of producers and executive producers, and stars Sean William Scott and Paul Rudd (who also contributed to the screenplay) actually see the throne I refer to. That they are aware of the new strain of dialogue, mannerisms, jokes, and behaviour that Frat Pack films have introduced to popular culture and therefore their power and role within those aspects of our time. That they have enhanced the notion that the goofy geek is also cool, that the thirty-something stoner is tolerable and of course the best of the adages — that everyone has the capacity to achieve. In condoning these approaches, mainstream adults and other over-achievers are consistently shown up as the true social losers, but in the cartoonish distortions of films like Role Models and the many of its ilk that have come before, is this really okay?
It is the opinion of this humble writer that film serves not only as social barometer but also, to varying degrees, as social dictator and so watched Role Models with the hope that the aforementioned self-reflexivity was going to be served. Albeit outside of the Apatow canon but with many of his minions and colleagues at the realm, this movie was going to be full of the intelligent social commentary these filmmakers are so capable of. Without preaching and through an everyday metaphor, it was going to show that even they as filmmakers and actors have to work extremely hard to get the production and the comedy to the screen. Alas, it was not to be so.
The film ticks each required box and no more. For R-rated comedy quirk: the consistently amazing Jane Lynch and Jen Yeong to name only two Wain regulars. For shock factor humour: the foul-mouthed Sean William Scott is teamed with Bobb’e J. Thompson. For quarter-life crisis good guy and sensible but sexy girlfriend: Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks. Peculiar and unsatisfying career: energy drink salesmen. Madcap scenario instigating catalyst, punishment which must be endured ending up being the best lesson you never thought they would learn, snappy banter, some dressing up for laughs, male bonding that no one can resist, the list goes on. The film is as funny and charming as any others of its genre. Yet again the formula has worked but unfortunately, as with its protagonists, has not reached its full potential as a multi-layered comedy with the capacity to comment on its own role in the society it serves.
Opportunities for character exploration through Augie’s world of battle re-enactment or the source of Ronnie’s adult vocabulary, not to mention their respective families, are left sadly unattended beyond Augie’s utterance: “in this world I don’t have to be me”. Obvious and clichéd as this may be, it is not this lack of ingenuity that is disappointing (this genre never promised us challenges); considering the insight into outsider mentality that films such as Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin and even Knocked Up have provided, it is unfortunate that Wain and company thought not to pay more attention to authenticity or sentimentality in the characters which their acting team would have been readily capable of executing. Particularly in the context of this anecdote of father figures, a narrative rife with prospects for emotion amidst the humor and commentary on the status of this genre’s role model status, there is a gaping hole where this leeway lies.
The closest this film comes to self-reflexivity is when the spirited little Ronnie leaps at an innocent Augie with flying punches for no apparent reason after having seen Danny and Wheeler beating each other up. Not only is there no follow-up to this, but the film continues on its merry way with crass abuse and ‘friendly’ punches aplenty. Redemption and realization does not come to Danny and Wheeler in relation to their lazy and childish lifestyles, but in their ability to adapt these unchanged attitudes to a form of wisdom suitable to their young lieges. They have bonded with other ‘non-achievers’ (for want of a better word) and not by maturing themselves nor acknowledging the effect their personalities have on the world around them. If anything, their brand of acumen is adopted to varying degrees by those around them who roll their eyes and smile at those wacky lads who’ll never change, but you gotta love ‘em.
And so continues the education that Wain, Rudd, Scott, Apatow, Banks, Rogen, and the up-and-coming Hill, Cera, Mintz-Plasse et al choose to brand wherein one can be inconsiderate, unhealthy, beer-swilling, weed-smoking, potty-mouthed, and sexist as long as you’re kind and charming your wits will carry you through anything and see you end up on top — the job, the girl, the laughs. As someone who thoroughly enjoys these narrative arcs and this formula of comedy my only concern after having seen Role Models is how long it will last. When will the jokes cease to be funny and the geeks stop being charming and the four-letter words simply run out? If a film with the potential of Role Models did not take it to a newer, fresher level then even in their duty as examples to the aspiring filmmakers of today they perhaps have much more work to do.