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"Drillbit Taylor," the latest comedy from the Judd Apatow laugh factory, is a relatively lame exercise that never achieves comic traction. Revolving around a trio of uber-geeks and a high school bully, the movie unfolds in fits and starts, never sure what the joke is.
But this might not matter. The Apatow brand and marquee name of Owen Wilson ensure a good opening. The performances are likable and in some instances possess enough charm to cause undemanding viewers to overlook script deficiencies. Business should hit the middle range or above for teen comedies.
The Apatow formula -- the veteran team of Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth also is aboard as producers -- leans heavily on extreme situations. A guy can't just be a virgin; he must be a 40-year-old virgin. So in "Drillbit Taylor," the bully can't just be a guy going through adolescent sadism; he must be a certifiable psychopath. And the geeks can't just be geeks; they must be corpulent, skinny or tiny.
On Day 1 of their high school career, scrawny, bespectacled Wade (Nate Hartley), chubby Ryan (Troy Gentile) and peewee Emmit (David Dorfman) run afoul of fearsome Filkins (Alex Frost, who has now polished the role of homicidal teen he launched in Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"). Things crescendo to where the trio must interview personal bodyguards. The one they settle on -- the only one they can afford -- is Drillbit (Wilson).
Drillbit is a complete phony, a homeless bum whose only expertise consists in begging and scamming for money. He figures these kids are good for a few hundred bucks, but his fellow tramps -- who unaccountably hang out in a cafe in the trendy Santa Monica Mall -- urge him to milk this gig for all its worth. This assures that he and his diminutive charges link up often enough to become sentimental buddies.
One problem in the script by frequent Apatow collaborators Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen is that Drillbit -- an AWOL Army vet with psychological and motivational problems who seemingly couldn't protect even himself -- never fits comfortably into the comic setting. Where's the joke here? Wilson goofs his way through an illogical role, where one minute he showers naked on the beach and the next he masquerades as a substitute teacher, taking over a different classroom each day and romancing a lonesome fellow teacher (Leslie Mann). For that matter, all adults -- the unconcerned principal, clueless parents and Drillbit's fellow bums -- are ill-conceived cartoons.
The film never allows its young heroes to show any cleverness. Aren't geeks supposed to think their way out of their dilemmas? A climactic fight is simply absurd. When a samurai sword gets introduced into the rumble, the film's tenuous grasp of any sort of reality comes undone.
Steven Brill's direction serves only to emphasize the uncertain, implausible nature of the sitcom. And happy endings seldom feel as false as this one. The lesson here is that every factory turns out "seconds," including the Apatow one.
An Apatow and Roth/Arnold production
Credits: Director: Steven Brill
Screenwriters: Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen
Story: Edmond Dantes, Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen
Producers: Judd Apatow, Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth
Executive producer: Richard Vane
Director of photography: Fred Murphy
Production designer: Jackson De Govia
Music: Christophe Beck
Co-producer: Kristofor Brown
Costume designer: Karen Patch
Editor: Thomas J. Nordberg
Drillbit Taylor: Owen Wilson
Lisa: Leslie Mann
Emmit: David Dorfman
Don: Danny McBride
Ronnie: Josh Peck
Ryan: Troy Gentile
Wade: Nate Hartley
Filkins: Alex Frost
Running time -- 102 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13