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Role Models

On its surface, Role Models is just another buddy comedy. The elasticity of the formula is demonstrated by the difference between a picture like this and, say, Wedding Crashers. Two self-absorbed Peter Pans undergo a series of ridiculous situations. Meaning is found in the end.  The general idea is to let the movie's core audience (men who can easily imagine being one of the buddies) have as great a time as possible before insisting on buckling down and doing whatever it takes to avoid becoming a loser for life.

The idea that a man might come of age by looking so foolish that observers laugh their heads off ought to strike us as odd. But it doesn't, because the only incentive for a man to grow up in our society is the threat of looking so foolish. Growing up means one thing: exchanging options (in the plural) for commitment (decidedly singular). Only when commitment has been made will a man take his life at all seriously. Fear of living with an unwise commitment for sixty years or more quite understandably inspires procrastination.

For Wheeler (Seann William Scott), there doesn't appear to be a reason to settle down just yet. So he doesn't, not even at the end. The possibility that Wheeler will wind up a loser for life is left open at the end. Long before this last divergence from formula, however, we realize that Role Models is a buddy comedy on the surface only. Director David Wain and Paul Rudd have constructed a comedy in which the hero — Danny (Mr Rudd) — doesn't actually have a buddy at all, except perhaps in the old-fashioned sense of World War II movies. If Wheeler comes through for Danny at the end, it's not because he likes him. And Wheeler likes everyone.

Not far beneath the surface of this buddy comedy, then, we have another film altogether, one that borrows the element of redemption from the buddy comedy in order to wrap things up at the end but that is otherwise a grim travelogue through suburban America. Because Mr Rudd, Mr Scott, and Elizabeth Banks, who plays Beth, Danny's long-time girlfriend, are all very good-looking actors, viewers might be pardoned for overlooking the complete absence of charm and beauty in the background. There are no aspirational interiors here. Beth's office — she's a lawyer — is neat and tidy enough, but it seems designed for the average fungible male attorney. Aside from that, the world of Role Models is tacky and pointless, and Mr Rudd's face is a mirror that reflects it. By channeling the Apollonian broken-heartedness that made Paul Newman such an unforgettable star, Mr Rudd makes Role Models a comedy that would be very dark indeed, if would only stop long enough for the darkness to register. As a good travelogue, however, it never stops.

In addition to the spiritual squalor of the film's secular scenes, Role Models patrols three fringe institutions that, with minor alterations, could serve as bone-chilling settings for such deadpan horror films as Seconds and Parents. Danny and Wheeler work for an anti-drug program sponsored by a nasty-looking soft drink called Minotaur. Danny, wearing a suit, lectures public school students about the horrors of drugs and the virtues of Minotaur, while Wheeler gambols about in a sort-of minotaur outfit, exhorting the young ones to "Taste the Beast!" The routine's utter cheesiness is embodied in the duo's vehicle, a souped-up truck with a gigantic, firebreathing can of Minotaur mounted on the flatbed. It is made clear at the outset that, while Wheeler is happy enough with this gig, Danny is not. Danny has awakened to find himself living a nightmare, ie still doing the same dumb job. His unhappiness has in fact made him as toxic as the soft drink that he and Wheeler are pushing, and when Beth decides that he's no fun anymore, Danny loses it, and in consequence encounters the other two venues of weirdness.

First is Sturdy Wings, a mentoring program-cum-day-care center captained by Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch). Gayle is a recovering messoholic whose scars are surprisingly raw; she is forever challenging Danny and Wheeler to bullshit her. Danny and Wheeler have been sent to do community service at her organization by a judge who's willing to do Beth a favor when it comes time to pick up after Danny's meltdown. Each defendant is assigned a mentee. Wheeler draws a fireplug of a kid who will stop at nothing to show his contempt for adult males (Bobb'e J Thompson). Danny is assigned to Augie (Christopher Mintze-Plasse), an awkward adolescent  who lives for medieval role-playing. The matches are dramatically satisfying: a pair of extroverts and a pair of introverts. While the extroverts muddle through genially, Augie's plight stirs something in Danny that has been waiting for someone to stand up for. Meanwhile, A D Miles plays a mentor who's so into what he's doing that even Wheeler's little charge knows that he's gay. Sp-ew-ky!

Then there is LAIRE. I forget what that stands for, but it involves a distillation of the film's preceding tackiness — if that's not a contradiction in terms. Grown-ups of all ages, and even some of the female persuasion, dress up in shambolic armor and club each other with Styrofoam broadswords. There is even the pasteboard faηade of a castle. Best of all, though, is King Argotron (Ken Jeong). Argotron — we don't learn his real name — takes role-playing to new depths, deploying his hand a recipient for the obeisance of his underlings. In his best scene, Argotron is visited by a supplicant Danny — seated among his courtiers at a booth in a burger joint. The king in a burger joint, wearing just the right kind of crown — get it? There is nothing remotely surreal about the scene, and yet nothing testifies more eloquently to the possibility that America has altogether slipped its moorings.

It will be interesting to see Role Models a second time. Will it be funny at all, or just deliriously mordant? In answer, all I can do is echo Kuzzik (Jo Lo Truglio), the role player with the chain-mail headgear who has put everyday vernacular behind him.

"Rub-a-dub." (November 2008)

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