‘Drillbit Taylor': Mild Thing, By Kurt Loder

Owen Wilson laid low by comedy downsizing.

Contrary to what you might expect, given the participation of such certified grossmeisters as producer Judd Apatow and writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (a “Beavis and Butt-head” veteran), the new Owen Wilson movie “Drillbit Taylor” is as sweet and smooth as a bowl of pudding. That it’s not a lot more memorable than that isn’t something one wants to grouse about in these foul times, but your reviewer is compelled to be candid.

The picture is pleasantly formulaic; you can sit back and watch its unsurprising plot unfold with only an occasional urge to check your watch. The story’s vintage familiarity may have something to do with its origin in a 20-year-old unproduced film treatment by ’80s teen-flick king John Hughes. Three high school freshmen, tormented by a pair of troglodyte bullies, advertise on the Internet for a bodyguard to be their proxy butt-kicker. Lovable Owen Wilson is the guy they unwisely end up hiring. That’s basically it. The kids bear more than a passing resemblance to the teen trio in that earlier Apatow-Rogen production, “Superbad”: One’s a gangly geek (Nate Hartley), one’s an overweight wiseacre (Troy Gentile), and the third is a militant dweeb (David Dorfman). What’s missing this time around is the mow-’em-down raunch of that previous movie. (“Superbad” was rated R; this is PG-13.) There are a few pro-forma pubic amusements, things like that, but they’re undistressingly mild and entirely familiar.

In Hughes’ original story, apparently, the bodyguard the kids hired was a battle-hardened mercenary — an actual butt-kicker. Rogen and Brown have tweaked this character into a nonviolent Army deserter whose butt-kicking bona fides are nonexistent. It’s a custom-fit role for Wilson, whose stoned charm and soulful glow are never less than likable. (And he does get off a few good lines: Deflecting praise for an unexpected heroic act, he says, “It’s like when a mother lifts an automobile off her child.”) But Wilson’s comic amiability is most effective in a context of seething loutishness (as was provided by Vince Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers,” for instance). Here there’s nothing really swinish for him to counterbalance; he’s beset on all sides by clamoring niceness.

Plausibility is an optional ingredient in this sort of movie; the writers here have not opted for it, and director Steven Brill (“Without a Paddle”) is content to play it their way. So we’re asked to buy the proposition that the homeless Drillbit (the name’s a small joke I’ll not spoil) soaps up in the nude every morning at an unenclosed public shower on a sunny L.A. beach. We’re also invited to accept the over-the-top behavior of the two bullies (played by Josh Peck and the alarmingly maniacal Alex Frost), whose vile depredations — which involve speeding-car attacks, vicious beatings and even a Samurai sword — surely wouldn’t go unbusted in or around a high school as upscale as the one depicted here. Then there’s Drillbit’s attempt to protect his teen employers by infiltrating the school as a substitute teacher, which doesn’t rise above the level of plot contrivance. Nor does the flimsy romantic subplot involving Drillbit and a love-starved English teacher (played by Leslie Mann, the upchucking drunkette in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”).

“Drillbit Taylor” doesn’t necessarily suggest that the sort of avant vulgarity with which Apatow and Rogen have so successfully specialized in the past is played out. For one thing, a picture merely produced by Apatow, like “The TV Set” or “Kicking & Screaming,” is usually a different thing from a picture he’s also directed, like “Knocked Up” or “Virgin.” But “Drillbit” does demonstrate one thing: When the appeal of a comic style depends on a conflation of the sweet and the scabrous, downsizing it to rope in the lucrative PG-13 audience can be a self-crippling creative move. And this movie’s upcoming lukewarm box-office performance might at least be a caution. Three words, in other words: the Farrelly brothers.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Drillbit Taylor.”

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