In Drillbit Taylor (Paramount Pictures), produced by Judd Apatow, co-written by Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown, and starring Owen Wilson, the career trajectories of three comic talents converge to dispiriting effect. It's Apatow's fourth project in the madly prolific year since his megahit Knocked Up, Rogen's second outing as a writer since the critically well-received Superbad, and the last movie Owen Wilson made before his suicide attempt. I'm not suggesting that there was a connection between those two events for Wilson, but if you were already considering ending it all, having the Drillbit Taylor script by your bedside wouldn't help.
The setup—three nerdy high-school freshmen hire a homeless man to protect them against a school bully—sounds unpromising but not hopeless. It's the slipshod and joyless execution that makes the whole affair so grim. Rogen is like a high-school English student trying to get away with plagiarizing his own book report. The central trio is directly cribbed from Superbad, released only seven months ago. Wade (Nate Hartley) is the Michael Cera, the shy, skinny kid with a painful crush on an out-of-his-league girl. Ryan (Troy Gentile) is the Jonah Hill, the fat loudmouth. And Emmit (David Dorfman) is the Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the guy so desperately geeky that even the dork set shuns him. Tortured by a sadistic upperclassman, Filkins (Alex Frost), the three decide to pool their allowances and hire a bodyguard.
After one of those loony-job-interview montages that (along with makeover montages and getting-in-shape montages) must be produced in bulk and stocked in studio warehouses, the boys choose Bob "Drillbit" Taylor (Wilson), an AWOL Army vet who passes himself off as a black-ops expert. He pretends to train the boys in martial arts and mind control, all the while scheming with his homeless buddies to rob the boys' homes and pawn their parents' stuff.
I could go on to detail the process by which Drillbit infiltrates the school posing as a substitute teacher, romances a fellow faculty member (Leslie Mann), and comes to realize that he needs the boys as much as they need him. But let me just freeze the frame for a second: Homeless Army vet, living alone in tent, conspires to deceive and steal from children. This is a comedy? It's not that a would-be funny movie—even one aimed at preteens, as this is—shouldn't be allowed to deal in unsavory characters or depressing social realities. But Drillbit Taylor seems oblivious to the fact that homelessness is depressing or burglary unsavory. Drillbit's marginalized social status—he grabs unclaimed food off cafe tables and leaves a smell behind wherever he goes—passes for a character quirk. Even after the kids learn their mentor is homeless, they seem unconcerned with finding out how and why he gets by. They just keep showing up at his tent in the woods for more judo lessons.
This obliviousness is an ongoing problem in Apatow's films, which invite the criticism by presenting themselves as moral fables: The seriousness of his characters' mistakes often seems to exceed the penance they pay. In other words, they get off the hook too easy. Remember the scene in Superbad where Mintz-Plasse's character, McLovin, shot at a flaming police car with the two rogue cops who had just totaled it? There was something so disturbing and frightening about that moment, an all-out fulfillment of a teenage boy's fantasy of lawless destruction, that I thought the movie might take an unexpectedly dark turn. Instead, it soon became clear that McLovin's adventure was exactly what he perceived it to be: a really rad night on the town. Here, both Drillbit's crimes (lying, theft) and the boys' (indifference to their friend's living conditions) are absolved too quickly in an implausible and fraudulent happy ending.
Though I didn't love Superbad (except for the brilliant Michael Cera), its profane put-downs sound like Noel Coward next to the lame sallies offered in Drillbit. Rogen can be an ingenious writer of individual lines, but he has yet to develop a sense of story structure. Drillbit Taylor is slackly paced and rife with questionable logic. (What's the older bully doing in a freshman English class?) As for Owen Wilson, I'm not going to be too hard on him for dusting off his golden-boy shtick yet again for this limp frolic. Last year, I wrote a piece musing on the Wilson brothers' midcareer slump. Learning a few months later of Owen's troubles, I regretted having added to the pile. But reading a summary of Owen's next project, Marley & Me (an adaptation of the best-selling book about a "couple that adopts a dog to give parenthood a trial run, then finds the mischievous pooch more than they bargained for"), makes me want to mail him a copy of Siddhartha and send him on a vision quest. Did this smart, handsome, talented man really go to hell and back just to make a romantic comedy with a dog?