Drillbit Taylor, a comedy about three youths who hire a "bodyguard" to protect them from school bullies, may be produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), but it doesn't really fit into the Apatow filmography of manic modern comedies. It feels like it belongs to a different continuum of film -- the lazy-yet-agreeable teen comedies of the '80s, where a simple hook gets festooned and garlanded with bits of business and digressions. That's not surprising, considering that one of the credited writers is that '80s comedy titan of teen John Hughes, shielded behind a pseudonym. It's not wholly retro -- the off-kilter, lazy charm of Owen Wilson in the lead role feels too modern for that -- but it also feels like a film we've seen many times before in form and flavor, and while it may not be consistently brilliant or laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, it is at the least consistently amusing.
Wade (Nate Hartley) and Ryan (Troy Gentile) are just entering high school; they're eager to move to the next phase of their lives. Wade is slight, bespectacled and intrinsically decent; Ryan is a beefy, big-boned boy, funny and outgoing. (Comparisons to Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad are not undeserved; Superbad co-writer Seth Rogen is credited here alongside Kristofor Brown, working from a story by John Hughes -- here credited as, in a shout-out to English majors nationwide, Edmond Dantes.) They're both looking forward to the opportunities for social re-invention their new environment offers: Ryan tells Wade "I don't want you to call me Ryan; call me T-Dog." But when minuscule, nervy, nerdy classmate Emmit (David Dorfman) is being shoved into a locker, Wade does the ethically right but tactically wrong thing of speaking up, and thereby places himself and Ryan on the radar of snake-eyed sociopathic school bully Filkins (Alex Frost) and his partner-in-thuggery Ronnie (Josh Peck).
Wade, Ryan and Emmit are soon perpetually put-upon by Filkins, and their parents and teachers are oblivious to the enormity of Filkins' crimes. They come to the obvious conclusion -- that they need to hire a bodyguard -- which of course makes no sense whatsoever, but which gives local homeless wanderer Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) a chance to enter the boy's employ. Walking into a coffee shop to meet the trio, Drillbit's wearing aviator shades and a canary-yellow ascot; as part of his interview, he explains how he left the Army: "I was discharged for unauthorized heroism; they call it an 'Army of one' in the ads, but they don't mean it. ..." They boys can only pay a modest sum ($387, in fact, with only $87 of that up front), but Drillbit has modest aims -- specifically, that he's going to rip off the boys, make enough money for a ticket to Canada and reboot his life in British Columbia. But Drillbit is soon convinced he can keep the money train rolling, and actually starts to like the kids; Drillbit may not have much of a life, but he makes a surprisingly inspiring (which is not, of course, the same thing as competent or qualified) life coach.
If nothing in the above sounds funny to you -- the props, the sensibility, the phrasing, the lowball payment figure and Wilson's phony bravado -- then you will probably find Drillbit Taylor excruciating. But childhood exposure to The Music Man made me a pushover for plots where a con man cons himself into believing his own line; as Drillbit gets to know the kids, he gets to like them, and he even begins a romance with one of the teachers at the school (Leslie Mann) while posing as a substitute to provide better protection. But of course, Drillbit's exposed, and of course he has to try and do the right thing; if you go to Drillbit Taylor expecting an innovative plot, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
If you go to Drillbit Taylor seeking a few laughs, however, you're going to be lightly rewarded. While the overall mood induced by the film is mild amusement, there are a few gags here that hit the mark perfectly, from a family portrait that speaks a thousand words to the sequence where Wade and Ryan's teaching themselves how to fight involves playing Xbox, watching Fight Club and drinking Red Bull, before a backyard pain-training session. Director Steven Brill (Big Daddy, Little Nicky) isn't exactly a visual stylist; all his films have a smeary, sickly look to their cinematography, and Drillbit Taylor is no exception. Brill mostly sets up the camera and lets his actors go, but between Hartley and Gentile's easy, lived-in interplay and Wilson's trademark delivery -- so laconic it verges on narcoleptic, the Zen-surfer-stoner digressions delivered in his strangulated drawl -- that serves him fairly well. And if Frost, Mann and other actors in supporting parts (like Steven Root as the clueless principal, Danny McBride as Drillbit's avaricious pal or Ian Roberts as Wade's go-getter stepdad) are given thin stuff to work with, at the very least they execute those minor turns well.
Drillbit Taylor is on the thin line between 'modest' and 'mediocre,' but I found myself laughing more often than not, and while a lot of Drillbit Taylor's charm comes from Wilson's well-worn screen persona, that's not the only thing it has going for it. Drillbit Taylor may be a Frankenmovie made of parts -- the skin of Superbad, the spine of My Bodyguard, a few bits of sinew from The Music Man, a limb off School of Rock -- but the end result is more sprightly than lumbering, more appealing than appalling. Drillbit Taylor isn't going to enter the canon of great comedies, but the people involved weren't shooting for that, and in a spring that's already seen flop comedies like Strange Wilderness, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and Semi-Pro thud into theaters, it's nice to see a comedy that achieves modest aims with a certain amount of skill.