Role Models (review)

Token Nerd

There’s something sad and pathetic about a movie character with more dignity and self-respect for himself than for the movie he’s in has for him. He’s like a cold and bedraggled puppy lured in from the rain who gets kicked in the teeth while he’s warming himself by the fire. Such is the fate of Role Model’s Augie Farks, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who suffered much the same fate in his debut in Superbad. Here, once again, he’s a charming dork who is, for the most part, pretty self-confident and okay with his weirdness, which should be a thing to celebrate unreservedly, but here he is granted only grudging approval, and that only after suffering much abuse for the “entertainment” of the audience, who are really in no position to be laughing at him at all.
There’s something crude and unkind about a movie that refuses to grant this charming dork the position of minor hero he deserves… even after it hands him the nominal title. It’s a strange and confused kind of hypocrisy at play here, for by the time Role Models comes to realize that, hey, Augie’s pretty cool, in his own weird way, it’s too late. Augie’s weird-coolness is now useful only in so much as it serves to wake up the flick’s putative hero to his own lack of enjoyment of life. In the same way that a single clichéd spiritually aware black character is acceptable on film only as far as he or she serves to spiritually enlighten a white person, Augie is acceptable here only as long as he is useful, spiritually, to the “normal” guy whom the audience is presumably meant to identify with. Augie is the token nerd.

Oh, to be sure, Role Models is that usual Frankensteinien assemblage of tittering about bodily fluids, casual homophobia, random emotionless sex acts, and other such expressions of apparently unoutgrowable male adolescent anxiety that passes for American comedy these days. (Did it really take four highly paid Hollywood writers, including director David Wain and star Paul Rudd, to “invent” this stuff? One 12-year-old boy could have done it for free.) But it has ambitions of being more than that. It wants to be, you know, meaningful, about thirtysomething GenX ennui, but it can’t even see the nose in front of its face.

We have Danny, see, 35 years old and miserable with his life. He works for an energy-drink company “selling poison to our nation’s youth,” he moans, as he and his coworker Wheeler spend their days pushing Minotaur, a vile concoction that costs six bucks a can, on schoolchildren. In their schools. That this could be something for a teenager to rebel against — this culture in which going to school makes you a captive audience for corporations to push their poison on you, with the willing cooperation of your school — appears to be lost on the movie. It’s only something for Danny, with his inarticulate rage, to rebel against.

So Danny — played by Rudd (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Over Her Dead Body), though his usual charm is mostly wasted here — snaps one day, and he and Wheeler (Seann William Scott [The Dukes of Hazzard, The Rundown], still without any charm of his own) end up with a string of petty legal offences that add up to 30 days in jail. Or else they can do 150 hours of community service, which they shall serve in a Big Brother-type program. I shan’t even go into the issue of teaming up unwilling and clearly unsuitable adults — to borrow a phrase from Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I’m pretty sure Wheeler is legally retarded — with impressionable and supposedly at-risk kids; that’s a whole other rant.

No, the thing that pisses me off most about Role Models is that we’re meant to identify with Danny, who, at 35, is a blank slate. He has no friends — Wheeler is just a coworker, and they clearly can’t stand each other — and no apparent interests in anything whatsoever. There appears to be no genuine connection — that is, one not required by the plot — between him and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks: W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno), who just broke up with him without ever offering us any clue as to what she saw in him in the first place. Danny is a complete nonentity, and we’re meant to feel sorry for him. He’s meant to be a model of “normality,” but the movie doesn’t realize that there might be something wrong with that.

Oh, it pretends to get it, but not till the last 20 minutes of the movie, and then it’s too late. See, Augie, the kid Danny is supposed to be mentoring, is into live-action role-playing: you know, where people with imagination dress up like knights or elves or wizards or whatever and escape for a little while from a world where pushing poison — a poison with a fantastical name borrowed from the very same mythology, it must be noted — on kids is an acceptable thing. And after an hour of the movie dumping on Augie for being a freaky weirdo who wears a cape and swings an aluminum foil-covered foam sword, someone who doesn’t deserve the kind of respect that the movie apparently believes that, say, Wheeler deserves — even though his only talent is an ability to get random “hot” women into bed with him at a moment’s notice — suddenly the movie gets it. Augie’s okay after all.

“Hey, sorry, kid, for treating you like garbage all along,” the movie seems to say, “but we’re okay now, right?”


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