Although the man himself had nothing to do with making the movie, “Role Models,” the new comedy starring Paul Rudd and , feels like a Judd Apatow family reunion. The cast is thick with actors familiar from various Apatow-related films — “,” “,” “” and “,” among others — and the story is constructed with the smooth clarity, and much of the heart, that distinguishes Apatow’s most popular films. If the picture sometimes seems like little more than a clothesline for gags, and its dude-child characters are beginning to look a little shopworn, and it sinks into raucous silliness toward the end, it’s still consistently funny — which of course is also very Apatowian.
Massively depressed Danny Donahue (Rudd) and his party-monster colleague Wheeler (Scott) are stuck in definitively dead-end jobs: making the rounds of grade schools lecturing bored students about the evils of drugs and hawking to them instead a nasty, industrial-green energy drink called Minotaur. Wheeler lurches around in a hairy-beast costume while Danny delivers the spiel. Since Danny is 35 years old and has been stuck in this miserable gig for a decade, his lectures sometimes lack uplift. (“Get ready to have your dreams dashed, kids.”) When a parking violation involving their company’s outlandish Minotaur-mobile escalates into a full-scale traffic disaster, Danny and Wheeler find themselves sentenced by a judge either to jail or to 150 hours of community service. They make the obvious choice and find themselves assigned to a child-mentoring group called Sturdy Wings, which is run by a very loosely wrapped woman named Gayle (Jane Lynch). Gayle is a reformed drug fiend who’s now all about troubled kids, and the troubled homes that produce them — a subject she knows well. (“My mother, out of necessity, was a whore.”)
Danny and Wheeler are assigned their own personal troubled tykes. Wheeler gets Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a spectacularly foulmouthed brat who inaugurates their relationship by loudly accusing Wheeler of having tried to fondle him. Danny finds himself put in charge of an über-geek named Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose wretched life revolves around L.A.I.R.E., a fantasy role-playing group whose members — togged out as wizards, elves, knights and whatnot — regularly gather to do fantasy battle. (“In this world,” Augie says, with a listless swish of his fake sword, “I don’t have to be me.”) Can these kids be saved? For that matter, can Danny? What would Judd Apatow do?
As Danny gets drawn ever-deeper into L.A.I.R.E., the film begins to sprawl a bit — although Ken Jeong, as the group’s dementedly imperious “king,” is a considerable hoot. Elizabeth Banks, as the girlfriend who further darkens Danny’s mood by dumping him, isn’t given a lot to work with, but she does add twinkle to the proceedings; and Lynch is almost as surreally hilarious here as she was bossing Rudd and his buddies around in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Rudd himself would seem a little too inward an actor to carry such a broad comedy — he’s too subtle to be a simple yuk-merchant. But the eloquent absurdity of his despair and his prickly bafflement at life’s ever-escalating indignities are still among the funniest things in the movie. And he looks cool in a Kiss costume, too.
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