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Drillbit Taylor (2008) March 27, 2008

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Steven Brill

You’d be forgiven for leaving the kids at home if you heard that a new Judd Apatow produced movie was rolling into theatres.  Tagged boastfully in the trailer with the line: “From the guys who brought you Knocked Up and Superbad”, there comes a certain amount of expectation, not just from the standard, but also the content.  As is the case with Drillbit Taylor, a film with Apatow collaborators behind the scenes and acting regular Seth Rogen involved in the script - but wait, not everything here is as it appears.  Look lower down the posters and you might catch a glimpse of something that demolishes all your preconceptions about this film and the kind of laughs it will employ: a family-friendly certificate.

As their first proper foray into the 8-and-up arena, Drillbit Taylor borrows extensively from films that have had past success in this market.  Set in a regular American town, the film follows two best friends named Wade and Ryan, who about to start high school and, hopefully, make themselves cool and popular in the process.  Of course, nothing goes to plan, and an ill-advised stand against the school bully, Filkins, leaves the boys as the prime target for his rage and an unwanted geeky friend by the name of Emmit.  Desperate to end the constant berating, the kids buy the services of a personal bodyguard to protect them during school hours.  They choose Drillbit Taylor - a war-hardened special ops operative who charges a suspiciously reasonable fee.  Unbeknownst to the boys, he’s a liar who’s also homeless, and planning to rob them blind to fund his expedition to a better life in Canada.

There are no prizes for looking at Seth Rogen’s involvement in the script and branding this movie ‘Superbad-lite’, a rather trite and obvious comparison you might think, until you see the film itself.  The three main characters are clones of the archetypes set by last year’s raunchier hit: there’s a slightly shy kid, an overweight and over-opinionated kid, and an geek-eclipsing kid whom the fat one struggles to get on with but the shy one kind-heartedly accepts.  If you’re not thinking of Evan, Seth and McLovin within the first few minutes of this gang getting together, then I’d start checking for Alzheimer’s.  And that’s not all, there are numerous other glaring similarities including a ‘getting off the bus’ scene that is strangely reminiscent, and a conclusion that takes place at a high school house party - red plastic cups and all.  Of course - and this is how it gets the “lite” moniker - it is strangled by a PG-13 rating (12A UK certificate) and so tones the themes of rampant teenage hormones down to the more age approriate subject matter of high school bullying.  Instead of getting ready to leave High School, these kids are just entering, which adds a slight innocence to the mix that the Apatow gang movies don’t really deal with often.
 
And there’s a reason for this.  I think it says something for their preferred writing style that almost all their movies are ‘R’ rated.  They certainly have a penchant for the explicit in both metaphorical and literal senses of that word, so any dialogue that can’t be said right on the nose comes across as only half-baked.  A case proven by Drillbit Taylor, which is left forlorn by its PG-13 boundaries.  Unable to rampantly swear and make crude innuendo, the script never bounces or conjures up the same laughs as previous adult-oriented efforts.  Notably, all the other Apatow produced comedies being released this year will be R’s, and rightly so as this movie shows that anything else just might be out of their comfort range.  Not that there’s anything wrong with what they do: Knocked Up [review] and Superbad [review] were big hits last year for the simple reason that they were refreshingly upfront and unsubtle; but take away that unrestricted license and there’s not a lot left.
 
What the film does have going for it is the natural charisma and comfortable presence of Owen Wilson in the lead role.  He’s almost too chilled out as a homeless destitute but at least it makes his turn into bodyguard and, later, school teacher, all the more believable.  He handles the comedy with his usual vocal exacerbations but is well backed up by the casting and performance of the three young actors: Nate Hartley (Wade), Troy Gentile (Ryan) and David Dorfman (Emmit).  There are also roles for Lesile Mann as a Drillbit-adoring teacher, and Alex Frost, who does the threatening bully routine with plenty of menace.  Director Steven Brill helms the film well, while the script by Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown has the interesting addition of giving a story credit to Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club director John Hughes.  Quite what involvement the quintessential 80’s teen maestro had here is unclear, but it certainly makes for a unique mix of talent.

But it’s the story, or at least parts of it, that are also the film’s biggest weakness.  One major aspect of the movie involving how Drillbit finds out about the bodyguarding job is completely glossed over, whereby we see one of the boys posting an ad online and then we see Drillbit getting up from someone else’s computer in a coffee shop, which I guess is supposed to imply that he went on the internet and somehow saw the advert or… something.  It looks like a little over-zealous scene cutting was done, but it ultimately creates a wild narrative jump early on - a rush to ‘get on with it’.  There are also some scenes in the Principal’s office that are, quite frankly, ludicrous (especially when the parents tag along) which bring the already shaky credibility of the events down even further.  With a conclusion that wraps itself up a little too neatly, what you end up with is a slightly disjointed affair that has little depth beyond the generous helping of gags that punctuate the dialogue.
 
Drillbit Taylor is a film that never quite seems sure of itself.  For everything that is quite good, there something else that is entirely predictable.  In fact, if you’ve read the plot synopsis then I bet you could map out the order of every event that happens, because it basically photocopies the story from all these ‘deceitful adult fools kids but turns good’ movies (Bad Santa, School of Rock) and sells it straight back to you wholesale.  When its not doing the obvious slapstick routine, breaching moral standards by showing that fighting is probably the way to solve your problems, or pilfering from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - an odd occurrence given the John Hughes writing credit - there are actually some nice moments, as well as a simple but entertaining story to follow.  And even if you’ve seen it all before, there is always Owen Wilson’s easy-going charm to hold you through the reasonable 102 minute duration.  The only thing you might need protection from is the certificate - an unsuccessful stab at taking the Superbad ethos to a wider audience.

Drillbit Taylor goes on UK general release from March 28th.

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