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Dustin Putman

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Drillbit Taylor  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Steven Brill.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, David Dorfman, Leslie Mann, Alex Frost, Josh Peck, Valerie Tian, Lisa Ann Walter, Ian Roberts, Beth Littleford, Stephen Root, Danny R. McBride, Cedric Yarbrough, Lisa Lampanelli, Blaise Garza, Billy O'Neill, Matt Walsh.
2008 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for crude sexual references, language, drug references and partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 16, 2008.
If the three main characters in 2007's "Superbad" (played by Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) were taken back in time to their high school freshman days, they would likely resemble the trio of awkward, lovable protagonists in "Drillbit Taylor." Directed by Steven Brill (2002's "Mr. Deeds"), written by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen, and produced by Judd Apatow (2007's "Knocked Up"), the film strives to be a zany comedy as well as a lighter-in-tone cousin to the classic John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s (Hughes even receives a story credit under alias Edmond Dantes). While it doesn't come close to the same sort of success as 1984's "Sixteen Candles" or 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Drillbit Taylor" does contain an irrefutable reality in the care with which its younger characters are written.

Tall and scrawny Wade (Nate Hartley) and acerbic and chubby Ryan (Troy Gentile) are best friends who want to start fresh and create names for themselves as they enter the halls of high school. Their first mistake, however, is accidentally wearing identical shirts on the first day; "Was there a two-for-one sale at Hot Topic?" someone asks them. Their second mistake is standing up for dweebish small-fry Emmit (David Dorfman) when he is stuffed into a locker by senior bullies Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck). Immediately, Wade, Ryan and Emmit become Filkins' and Ronnie's number-one targets in their reign of terror, and not even an attempt at going to the school principal (Stephen Root) can stop it.

Deciding that they need to hire a bodyguard but with limited funds to pay him, they opt for homeless Iraq War vet Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson). What begins as a secret ruse in order to snatch valuables from the kids' homes and pawn them off soon takes a turn when he starts to empathize with their plight. Posing as a substitute teacher to keep a closer eye on Wade, Ryan and Emmit, Drillbit finds himself instantly taken by unlucky-in-love English teacher Lisa (Leslie Mann), who believes she has finally found a potential partner who isn't a loser.

"Drillbit Taylor" works best when it is focusing on the miserable travails of 14-year-old underdogs Wade, Ryan and Emmit. Though the three of them fit into specific types, they are treated as authentic teens that viewers will clearly recognize from their own past, if they weren't one of them to begin with. Their home lives, particularly that of Wade, are also interestingly portrayed, with Wade getting no help from overbearing stepdad Jim (Ian Roberts) when it comes to his troubles with being bullied. Since Jim welcomely admits he used to be a bully himself, he has no idea how to give advice to his stepson in a constructive manner. The romantic subplot between Wade and classmate Brooke (Valerie Tian), despite following a familiar trajectory, is also played just right, and the way Brooke reacts when Wade admits that he signed up for the Asian Heritage Club to be closer to her is unexpected and sweet.

When Drillbit begins monopolizing screen time from them around the midway point, the film temporarily loses sight of the bigger picture and strains credibility. The very idea that he could take a shower, throw on a suit and be welcomed into a high school as a substitute teacher—particularly in today's times of increased security—is ridiculous, though director Steven Brill does have fun in the way he introduces himself to the staff as Dr. Illbit and is ready to take Lisa into a closet before the first bell of the day has rung. Leslie Mann (2007's "Knocked Up") is a winning presence as Lisa, even if her character is there solely to give Drillbit a love interest, while Owen Wilson (2007's "The Darjeeling Limited") is his usual laid-back self. It is tough to connect to Drillbit on an emotional level since he is something of a liar and a thief, but Wilson makes him ingratiating enough to be likable.

The title may claim otherwise, but the true stars of "Drillbit Taylor" are newcomer Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile (2006's "Nacho Libre") and David Dorfman (2002's "The Ring") as Wade, Ryan and Emmit. Naturally funny and certainly game, they portray exactly the kinds of characters the viewer wants to root for. Dorfman is especially a standout as the Broadway shirt-wearing, overly hyper Emmit, who clings to the other two when they initially stand up for him and refuses to go away. As bullies Filkins and Ronnie, the intense Alex Frost (2003's "Elephant") and Josh Peck (2004's "Mean Creek") struggle to bring human qualities to characters who are out-and-out psychopaths—in one overblown scene, they chase down on-foot Wade, Ryan and Emmit with their car—but certainly fulfill the requirement of being threatening. Frost gets a single line of dialogue near the end that suggests he has a conscience, so that's something; most movies of this type don't even afford the villains that. Last but not least, as the angelic Brooke, Valerie Tian (2007's "Juno") is a delight in her handful of scenes.

There is a suspicion that the marketing department behind "Drillbit Taylor" is going out of its way to make it appear to be a kid flick, but it's thankfully not. Rated PG-13 and unafraid to delve into the sorts of things high school freshman do talk and think about, the film is one that audiences of that age range and older will really appreciate. With a solid if not overwhelming number of big laughs and a lot of extra smile-inducing moments, "Drillbit Taylor" goes down with ease when it isn't trying too hard. This may not be a great teen comedy, but it is a warm and smart one.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman