Setting The Standard: Role Models Reviewed

It might look like just another American comedy but don't be fooled. David Bax applauds this skillfully executed mainstream outing from from the crack comedy team responsible for cult classic _Wet Hot American Summer_.

Making a comedic film requires a very difficult balancing act. As per the conventions of mainstream cinema, there must be an acceptable narrative – after all is said and done, the movie has to have a story that makes sense. This obligation, however, can get in the way of the flights of comic fancy that produce the guffaws the audience was hoping for when they bought their tickets. This serving of two masters has crippled many a movie. It’s the reason so many of these films lose their comedic steam in the final act. It’s often as if the filmmaker is saying, “Okay, enough dicking around, let’s get to work tying up the plot.” Occasionally, movies like last year’s Step Brothers or Will Ferrell’s other masterpiece of narrative anarchy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, have chosen to eschew any meaningful connection to traditional narrative in favour of cramming jokes in wherever they’ll fit and have benefited from such an approach. But there’s something more satisfying about a film that can do both things – that can walk that line perfectly. We saw it last year with Superbad and now we get to see it again in David Wain’s Role Models.

Wain, one of the bizarre and brilliant minds behind seminal 90s sketch comedy group The State, made his feature film directing debut back in 2001 with cult hit, summer camp movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer. Here he makes a debut of a different kind, as a studio hand. Role Models is without a doubt the most mainstream thing he’s done in his career and he’s pulled it off with aplomb.

Thanks to supporting players such as fellow State alums Kerri Kenney-Silver and Ken Marino, the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Walsh and the always reliable A.D. Miles (who gets some of the film’s most memorable moments, including repeated references to a Wings song that doesn’t exist), Role Models always maintains an inspired absurdity that won’t disappoint the Wet Hot American Summer crowd. There are plenty of nonsensical non sequiturs and moments of ticking discomfort. Ken Jeong is particularly unsettling as the creepily sexualised king in a live action role playing game.

Meanwhile, the story, while by no means exceptional or all that fresh, is told with intelligence and respect for the audience and is mined for maximum emotional impact without ever being manipulative or overly sentimental. Danny (Paul Rudd, who collaborated on the script with Wain and Marino) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott, his infectious eagerness used here to great effect as a smarter and more likable version of his American Pie character) are shills for an energy drink company. Their job is to travel from grade school to grade school convincing kids that their product is a hip and acceptable alternative to using drugs. Danny somehow finds this life unfulfilling and, when his girlfriend dumps him, he has a meltdown that gets him and Wheeler placed under arrest for destruction of property and a traffic violation, to say the least. As an alternative to jail time, these two misfits are assigned to participate in a mentoring program run by an alarmingly proud ex-junky (Jane Lynch). There they meet their young charges, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad’s McLovin) and Bobb’e J. Thompson (jaw-droppingly hilarious on MTV’s Human Giant).

What comes next is, on the surface, fairly predictable. You know that lessons will be learned and at least one of the four leads will end up kissing a girl. But these conventions are navigated so deftly, you hardly even notice how unsurprising they are. There’s an honesty in the way the film portrays both the frustrating life of the adolescent outcast and the sadness of grown men who behave much like adolescents themselves. The children learn how to be functioning (if not normal) children and the adults finally, finally learn to be adults. The directive to be true to yourself is somehow turned from a cliché into a revolutionary pro-nerd battle cry.

At the end of it all – the live action role playing, the Ambien-fueled sex, the glorification of all things KISS – one is left satisfied, both in the number of laughs and the artful telling of a good story. Role Models is one of the best mainstream comedies in recent years.

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