Role Models is the 2008 comedy from director David Wain (Wanderlust, MTV’s The State), written as a story by Timothy Dowling and William Blake Heron, with Dowling, Wain, Ken Marino and Paul Rudd contributing to the screenplay.
As one would probably expect with this many guys around the writing table, it’s a movie featuring men who are having difficulty finding their way through life. Too old to refer to themselves as young, nowhere near mature enough to accept responsibilities of adulthood. Hence that early reference to one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
And as one would expect, there are also boob jokes. Not a film-derailing amount of them, but they’re there. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Role Models follows Danny (Paul Rudd) and his antagonistic, Kiss-obsessed friend Wheeler (Seann William Scott), employees of a company which manufactures an energy-drink, Minotaur. The pair tour a novelty branded monster truck around schools promoting an anti-drugs message, which is in fact a thinly veiled marketing exercise, with Wheeler dressed in an appropriately ridiculous bovine costume while Danny lectures the kids on the benefits of fizzy green chemicals.
When Danny’s increasingly sardonic demeanour leads to him being dumped by his long-time lawyer girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), a particularly fractious day ends in our heroes being convicted following an aggravated traffic violation. Beth manages to keep the pair out of prison on the condition that they enroll in ‘Sturdy Wings’, a social outreach programme organised by reformed alcoholic Gayle (Jane Lynch), partnering troubled and lonely children with adult mentors, for the benefit of both.
Danny is paired with medieval fantasy cosplayer Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a quiet geeky teenager seeking solace a world away from his brash mother and boorish stepfather. Meanwhile, Wheeler gets to hang out with Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a younger boy from a single-parent family, fiercely intelligent but with an aptitude for causing trouble. Danny and Wheeler have their work cut out for them, attempting to befriend kids when each are hopelessly inept at maintaining adult relationships, but also knowing that failure to complete their set hours in Sturdy Wings will result in them being sent to prison instead. Thus comedy, drama and a comfortably manageable amount of character development ensues…
The important thing with Role Models is the realisation that the plot is almost inconsequential. Sure, it’s the mechanics and framework of the film and the means by which grown men can hang out with children for 90 minutes without that seeming too weird, but ultimately this is a character-piece. It’s a chance to watch Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott do what they do best. Scott plays the Stiffler-lite archetype that he’s perfected since the days of American Pie, while Rudd is… well, he’s Paul Rudd. Managing to be relatable and twinkly-eyed even at his most disparaging, if you’ve seen Paul in Clueless, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Dinner For Schmucks or even just Ant-Man, you know what you’re going to get. And the best part is, that’s absolutely fine.
The supporting players here are equally ‘established’ in the Apatow/SNL school of performance, with Jane Lynch, Ken Jeong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Joe Lo Truglio each well-enough suited to their roles, but largely inhabiting personalities that they’ve made their own elsewhere. While it would be unfair to suggest they’re ‘playing themselves’, the feeling certainly holds that parts were written with the cast in mind, and all were encouraged to ad-lib around basic plot-points. Which, again, is absolutely fine.
But the real standout from a predictably amiable studio-comedy is Bobb’e J. Thompson. Short in stature and unflinchingly opinionated, his character channels Diff’rent Strokes’ Arnold with a potty-mouth and a burgeoning obsession the opposite sex (herein lie the boob jokes). Thompson’s scenes with Seann William Scott feel like they matter to the story, like something’s actually moving forward. Both characters desperately crave attention, and Wheeler has to actually learn from his own behavior to try and teach Ronnie that it’s okay to not be a smartmouth all the time. Each performance feels a little one-note at first, but both develop at a satisfying pace.
The overall script is clearly very broad, with the emphasis being on the comedic clashing of personalities rather a tight driving of the story. The dumped-boyfriend aspect (reinvented for a generation in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats) rears its head early in the film, but remains largely just that – a subplot. When the third act strife of a four-way falling-out occurs right on time, the inevitable triumphant conclusion takes a moment to sweep up Danny and Beth, determined to put smiles on faces all round. The potential of prison-time seems to be the least of our characters’ concerns, and from a structural point of view that’s exactly what it is.
It’s an oddity that the cosplaying subplot initially feels crowbarred into the screenplay, a shorthand for the gentle mocking of sword’n’sorcery geeks (let’s not forget that while Lord Of The Rings had long been a thing, the mainstream-baiting Game Of Thrones was still three years away from its televisual debut). And yet when the finale of Role Models takes place at an outdoor, all-day fantasy battle populated by hundreds of players of all ages, it becomes a celebration of collective nerdery. The Kiss-referencing now seems entirely fitting (and when your lead characters’ truck has literal bull-horns, that’s a licence to go all-in) and is the film’s joyous masterstroke.
Role Models holds up a decade down the line as largely undemanding buddy-com. A movie which doesn’t necessarily give audiences anything new, but neither does it ask much in return. It’s easy to enjoy if you’re in the mood for an almost entirely male (and let’s be fair, almost entirely white) perspective on feelgood, underdog bonding in the 21st century.
As corny as it all is (especially in a Universal comedy), Role Models is a film about discovering who you’re meant to be. About friendship being a duty but not a burden. About finding true role models in the people who inspire you – with their hearts, not their age. It’s also about accepting that Kiss is a band suitable for any occasion.
So crack open a beer, crank up the volume and get ready to rock-and-roll all night!
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