© 2008 Ray Wong
Judd Apatow, the producer behind raunchy sex romps such as 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, seems to have set his sight on teen comedies lately. While Superbad was all about seniors trying to drunk and laid, Drillbit Taylor is a bit younger and more existential (with a PG-13 rating instead of R): trying to survive bullies and high school.
On their first day of high school, Wade (Nate Hartley), Ryan (Troy Gentile) and Emmit (David Dorfman) are three dorks who immediately draw the attention of bully Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck). Hoping to survive high school, they try to hire a professional bodyguard to protect them. They find their man in a war veteran named Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson).
Unbeknownst to them, Drillbit is actually a homeless con-man. His plan is to take the kids' money and burglarize their houses when they're at school. He teaches the kids useless skills and tactics, basically bullshitting them before he finds the opportunity to get his money so he can move to Canada. When the boys get hurt because of Drillbit's bogus advice, Drillbit feels bad and develops real feelings for them, and he decides to actually go through with it, protecting them for real. He masquerades as a substitute teacher.
Owen Wilson (The Darjeeling Limited) is a likable actor who has done some sharp, quirky films such as The Royal Tenenbaums as well as some duds such as I Spy. It seems like Mr. Wilson will take any project or character pitched his way. Drillbit Taylor seems like such a throwaway character, and Wilson has a difficult time holding it together as the only main adult character. He tends to fare better when he's paired with comedians with better chops: Vince Vaughn, Bill Murray, even Ben Stiller. On his own, he stumbles, staggers, and falters.
On the contrary, the boys are a joy to watch. Nate Hartley (Unlicensed) is delightfully scrawny, geeky, naive and sweet. Despite his weak exterior, his character, Wade, has strong convictions including his determination to get to know a girl named Brooke, played by Valerie Tian (Juno). Troy Gentille (Good Luck Chuck) plays the obligatory fat boy with zest, worthy of all the famous fat boys of the past. As the shrimpy, wimpy Emmit, David Dorfman (The Ring Two) has a kind of creepy quality that plays perfectly well in the film.
The adults are less effective in this comedy about teens (Drillbit included, who is basically a big boy who never grew up). As the school bully, Alex Frost (Stop Loss) has a strange stare and sinister look that serves the crazy character well. Leslie Mann (Knocked Up) is hilarious as the sex-crazed English teacher.
Written by Kristofor Brown (The Tom Green Show) and Seth Rogen (Superbad), the script is surprisingly formulaic. The situations and the dialogue are rather cheesy and predictable. The strength of the screenplay is the characterization of the three boys, who help us care about the story. Drillbit is basically a few caricatures meshed into one -- it's kind of difficult to imagine a guy like Wilson as a bum (a surfer, sure). And by toning down the raunchiness and language, the movie feels flat. The bullying scenes, however, are rather disturbing at times, clearly drawn from the painful experiences the writers had (Seth Rogen, in particular, seems to have become the official spokesperson for dorks -- who gets the girl -- everywhere).
Director Steven Brill (Without a Paddle) is no stranger to dorky comedies. His strength is to draw on the chemistry between his leads, and it's no exception here. The young actors have great chemistry together and they play well with big boy Wilson as well. On the other hand, the general directing and editing are choppy. The narrative loses focuses at various places and the pace slows down tremendously, especially when we're following Drillbit. The bullying does get tedious after a while, and the villains are not given enough depth; in fact, many characters are simply cartoon cutouts. The jokes are not always funny either.
Over all, the movie is forgettable and misses the mark. Thankfully the affecting performances and chemistry of the three young actors prevents the movie from becoming as painful as getting our teeth drilled.
Stars: Owen Wilson, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, Ian Roberts, Valerie Tian, Leslie Mann, Alex Frost, David Dorfman, Josh Peck
Director: Steven Brill
Writers: Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen, John Hughes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude sexual references, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 6
Production – 7
Total – 6.3 out of 10