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.
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.