Directed by: Steven Brill
Starring: Owen Wilson, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, David Dorfman, Alex Frost, Josh Peck, Leslie Mann
Seeing Drillbit Taylor won’t harm you in any significant way. You will not need medical attention in its wake, but you may find yourself wondering why you bothered. It’s not unpleasant. It’s even moderately amusing at times, but it’s also the last word in negligible.
The film is the latest offering from the current king of comedy Judd Apatow. (Remember when Ivan Reitman was the king of comedy? Why does it have to be “king of comedy” anyway? Why not take a phrase from a true king of comedy, Preston Sturges, and go for “caliph of comedy?”) It’s not directed or written by Apatow, mind you, but he did produce it. And it’s clearly in a similar—albeit less raunchy—mode to his other works, so it can be fairly placed as an Apatow product.
The same was true of Superbad (2007), and both it and this film share Apatow-buddy Seth Rogen as a screenwriter. In fact, Drillbit Taylor isn’t a whole lot more than the PG-13 freshman version of Superbad—with a star (Owen Wilson) grafted on and an old John Hughes (under his “see how literary I am” pen name of Edmond Dantes) dusted off as a story writer for the framework. Superbad (2007) offered us three über-dork high-school seniors desperate to fit in and get laid, and here we have essentially the same three kids as freshmen desperate only not to be killed by the school bully (Alex Frost, Elephant).
I’ve never bought into the greatness of Judd Apatow. I disliked The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) intensely, found Knocked Up (2007) mildly amusing on one viewing and obnoxious on a second. What I liked about Superbad (2007) had more to do with its dramatic aspects than its comedic ones. I managed to avoid the Apatow-produced Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). Drillbit Taylor is both more and less of the same.
It’s more in that the three kids—Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, David Dorfman—are virtually interchangeable with the three kids—Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse—in Superbad, though the new crop lack a lot of the charm of their predecessors. Hartley is likable, but falls apart in dramatic scenes. Gentile comes off better. Dorfman, on the other hand, is even creepier than he was in The Ring (2002).
It’s less of the same thanks to its unbelievable John Hughes underpinnings. Whatever qualities Hughes’ teen comedies possessed, realism wasn’t among them. They took place in a world of high school that could only exist in a screenwriter’s imagination, and nothing the Apatow machine can do changes that. The idea that the clearly psychotic bully out to get our heroes could get away with even a quarter of the shenanigans depicted here makes the fight-club nonsense in the recent Never Back Down look positively documentarian in nature. Throw in such doozies as the utterly distracted school staff and why the 12th-grade bully is in a freshman English class, and the falseness of the Hughes formula stands out in sharp relief.
And then there’s the title character, Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), the bargain-basement “bodyguard” the boys hire to protect them from the bully. In reality, Drillbit is the movie’s comfortable notion of a homeless person, who’s out to fleece the kids for whatever he can. The movie’s idea of homelessness is preposterously simple, sanitary and sober, amounting to little more than comic panhandling and over-laundered clothing.
Here is further evidence that if he’s not in a Wes Anderson picture or at least co-starring with Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson is pretty much a wasted commodity. This time, he finds himself relegated to essentially a supporting player in a movie where he’s supposed to be the star. That might be for the best, since Wilson is clearly on autopilot for the entire film. The character doesn’t even seem to have been written, just cobbled together from Wilsonian tropes and tics. In the end, that’s pretty much the feeling of the whole film: a shambling, genial patchwork of things that have been done before and done better. Rated PG-13 for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity.