Role Models (2008)

I may have had a little bit of trepidation going into this comedy, mainly because it looks like something that could so easily be so badly (and unfunnily) generic. The premise — two rather childish men, to avoid jail time, are sentenced to community service, which involves mentoring two fatherless misfit boys; hilarity ensues — could fit easily into the oeuvre of, say, Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn without any problems, and I’m not the biggest fan of the resulting ‘hilarity’ in those situations. However, it turns out that Role Models is for the most part pretty well-judged, and most importantly it has laughs. I’d say it fits in most clearly with the gently ‘bromantic’ comedy of, say, Judd Apatow along with the improvisational work of Will Ferrell et al. (which of course is rooted in Saturday Night Live) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

The two guys in this situation are Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott), driving from school to school peddling a terrible energy drink called Minotaur, while the latter is dressed in a furry Minotaur costume. It’s reasonable to say that their lives are at a dead end; Danny, in particular, is sarcastically bile-filled and consequently is, quite reasonably, dumped by his long-time girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). A sequence of nicely underplayed lashing-out leads to a criminal conviction, its commutation to community service, and thereby to a mentoring programme run by Gayle (Jane Lynch) where they meet their respective charges. Danny must mentor Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is heavily involved in live-action role-playing (LARP) games, while Wheeler gets the potty-mouthed and largely uncontrollable Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, channelling Tracy Morgan, which is appropriate given that he’s played Morgan’s son in 30 Rock).

Sure, it’s at this point that we get a pretty thinly-veiled morality story about two men trying to work through their own issues via the healing power of connecting to another human being, which is why I’d put this in the ‘bromance’ category. But none of this is really layered on like you might fear (well, it generally avoids schmaltzy musical cues, in any case, which is my own pet hate), and the focus is firmly on the relationships between the two men, and between the men and their mentees. This leads Danny to get more involved in Augie’s LARPing activities — which is where most of the comedy cameos appear, including a wonderful Ken Jeong as the self-appointed ‘King’ of the LARP group, as well as Joe Lo Truglio and Matt Walsh. This of course could be the cue for much mockery, and though some individuals are the butt of jokes, it’s not in the end because of their choice to dress up as faux mediaeval knights and play make-believe war games, but rather because of the insecurities of Danny’s character.

It’s not perfect by any means. Wheeler’s crudity leads to plenty of rather weak ‘boobie’-based observational bonding with his filthy-minded young charge — but at least this isn’t dwelt upon. What instead we get is a rather fond and unsentimental portrait of wayward men learning to be better, and even if the set-up is hardly original and the pay-off hardly a surprise, it still provides plenty of enjoyment along the way.

Role Models film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain, Timothy Dowling, Paul Rudd and Ken Marino; Cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook; Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 January 2014.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

There’s a refrain that’s repeated over and over in this film: “this is real life”. It’s repeated often enough that I get the feeling the writer-director must have a bit of a complex about quite how abstracted all this stuff is from any kind of recognisable reality. I mean, that’s fine — it hardly hides its comic book origins with all those luridly saturated colours, the glib violence, the superheroes and supervillains storyline and the superimposition of comic book captions — but the repetition of that particular phrase just comes across as witless irony in such a uneven work.

The unevenness is in the tone, which bounces around in a rather discomfiting manner. There are so many big melodramatically emotional crescendoes that it’s very easy to stop caring about any of the characters, though certainly the filmmakers must expect their audience to be fairly apathetic given the casual slaughter involved (most notably of a squad of police officers, who appear to have done little to merit such treatment, unlike the misanthropic ‘super’-branded characters). There’s scarcely a scene lacking a major character repenting of his/her actions, pledging to change, being confronted by the bitterness of life, and grappling with their life choices. There are earnest close-ups and stirring music but little real emotional catharsis — it feels more like desperate sententious back-peddling to justify the next bout of “real life” cartoon violence, all nunchucks and red dye packs.

And yet, somehow, I don’t really hate this film. It’s not that it’s particularly funny — it may be going for action-comedy, but the latter never really gets much beyond the colourful cartoonishness of the characters and a bit of underage swearing, and so is easily forgettable. It also has a troubling relationship to race — (white) characters make jokes at the expense of racist stereotypes yet the fact that there are always other characters to call them on it doesn’t really change some of the racial dynamics in play. Almost all the ‘super’ characters are white, and more often than not possess a fair amount of independent wealth, while there’s an extended sequence of them battling a group of shady oriental clichés lifted straight from some fever dream of Hong Kong cinema. Plus there’s a real underlying nastiness to the film’s worldview, that familiar reactionary politics of vigilantism with which filmmakers like Michael Winner or John Milius would surely be comfortable — but that was all there in the first film, and every bit as troubling.

No, I think what I like is Chloë Grace Moretz as an action hero, and as Hit-Girl she’s very much the focus of this second film (over the nominal titular character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, gawky, geeky and very much post-adolescent by this point). She’s charismatic and capable, with greater fighting skills not to mention self-confidence than most of the rest of the cast, and hardly requires saving at any point — except perhaps from her ‘normal’ self, as she spends rather too much of the film not being Hit-Girl. Her nemesis in the film is Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s pathetically-likeable supervillain Chris, who dubs himself The Motherfvcker, and gets the closest in the film to laugh-out-loud comedy, generally while doing something unspeakably vicious. Pretty much everyone else is rather lost amongst the peaks and troughs of ersatz emotion.

Reading back over what I’ve written makes it sound like I was seething throughout this film, but if that’s not the case, it’s certainly not a film that leaves me feeling particularly charitable. It’s a nasty vision of a broken society that’s only barely held together by brightly-coloured spandex and pleather.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Wadlow (based on the comic books Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.); Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 September 2013.