26 March 2008 | Chris Knipp
Doing your own knockoffs
This comedy about three nerdy high school freshman who hire a low budget bodyguard to ward off a bully reads a lot like a down-market knockoff of the Judd Apatow franchises (note the plural), but it's actually got the Apatow imprimatur (he produced; his collaborator Seth Rogen co-scripted). Director Brill has strong links with Adam Sandler (he directed two of Sandler's less impressive comedies), and in fact, what's coming next is an "Untitled Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler Project." All of which unfortunately tells us what 'Walk Hard' already clearly signaled: notwithstanding the success of '40 Year Old Virgin,' 'Knocked Up,' and 'Superbad,' what Apatow and his posse are into more than anything is flooding the market--quantity, not quality. Stephen Holden of the NYTimes suggests we see this one as "part of the Apatow discount line." Unfortunately when you cut the quality in comedy you also lose laughs. Since the main actors are talented and appealing, this project has to be seen as a terrible waste--despite the box office and the paychecks for those concerned. Sometimes in the popular, as in the fine, arts, the clunkers are the necessary stepping-stones to the good stuff. But you don't have to waste your time looking at them.
Drawing from TV's "Freaks and Geeks" for the kids; from Renoir's 'Boudu' or Mazursky's remake of it for Owen Wilson's character, the homeless charlatan bodyguard; and from Tony Bill's Eighties youth flick (and Matt Dillon vehicle) 'My Bodyguard' for the interface between the two, 'Drillbit Taylor' has a touch of sadism and too much reliance on slapstick knock-downs for its laughs. There's a warm heart somewhere here, but it gets lost in the uneasy subject matter and the haste.
Once again as in 'Superbad' the three-nerd pattern of "Freaks and Geeks" is followed: one boy is tall, skinny and bespectacled (Wade, Nate Hartley), another fat and curly haired (Ryan AKA T-Bone, Troy Gentile) and the third small with braces (Emit, David Dorfman). This time they seem a little young to be in high school. (They're all good, and newcomer Nate Hartley is appealing.) In the superior 'Superbad' the central trio seemed a tad old. Only in what now seems the Apatow golden age of "Freaks and Geeks" did the kids seem just right, and in the TV series format their characters also had room to breathe, instead of having to rely on instant back-stories and sound-bite parents.
Ironically, the bully, Filkins, is played by Alex Frost, a young actor who got his start playing one of the bullied boys who turns mass murderer in Van Sant's 'Elephant'. Perhaps Frost has a little of the sociopath in his eyes, but his face still looks kind--not that this movie really gives him such complexity. He's barely more than a looming physical threat.
The plot has romance and triumph-of-the-underdog elements, but also becomes a sort of odd buddy picture. Drillbit, actually a deserter, pretends to be an Army ranger with commando skills but quickly emerges as mostly talk, and really no more aggressive by nature than Wade. He avoids confronting Filkins at first by taking the boys aside and training them out of school. His encouragement makes him become a kind of big brother to them--or at least to Wade; the other two boys are scantily developed and it's only he who becomes an accidental hero and gets the girl. This in parallel fashion also happens to Drillbit. In the jerky, meandering plot both are cowards who discover their hidden tough side under pressure.
This role fits Owen Wilson just fine, but without really good material and a strong foil such as Vince Vaughan or Ben Stiller (or his cohorts in 'The Darjeeling Limited') he comes across as somewhat limp. His very ease in line readings and all too natural charm only contribute to the feeling that this whole affair was thrown together in haste.
Bullies are always gratuitously mean and Filkins has no motivation. But if not about to become a mass murderer, he at least may be horribly lonely because his parents live in Hong Kong. His character isn't worked out--one of the movie's various missed opportunities, since simply punishing the villain and sending him away ill befits the story's good-heartedness; and his transformation could have been funny as well as appealing. The showdown comes at a party Filkins gives--odd in itself, since bullies aren't social organizers. Wade, Emit and T-Bone go there to kick ass, but the confrontation before the big audience of kids at the party is a scene from another kind of movie. It shows the elements Seth Rogan and Company have cobbled together don't mesh. Really now, how do you make a comedy about a bully?
Nor could one believe for a minute the plot line wherein Drillbit successfully poses as a substitute teacher,"Dr. Illbit," saying as long as you carry a coffee cup passing as faculty is a snap. Not for the first time the movie fudges, and before long he's teaching lots of classes including gym (where he is conveniently able to torment the bully and his sidekick without reprisals). Wearing clothes from the boy's houses he becomes quite a dandy--much too elegant for a public high school. In the faculty room, the sexiest woman teacher pounces on him--leading to a psychobabble subplot about her weakness for men who are losers, but no development of the relationship.
Drillbit feeds the boys a variety of unrelated tips: learn to take punches (ignore the pain); improvise weaponry (an excuse to steal valuables from one boy's house--and for another subplot); have your pals hold you back so you can seem violent without attacking (this one backfires badly); pretend to be sympathetic toward your aggressors. . .and so on. This incoherent sequence is further evidence of careless improvising. Nonetheless Drillbit would be a genuine comic creation--his false bravado even evokes Falstaff's motley colors--if only the movie had been made with more care.