Role Models (Universal) is funnier than it has any right to be. It's the first mainstream movie from David Wain, a veteran of the comedy troupe the State who previously directed two sketch-based cult films, Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid making another collection of randomly stitched-together skits, Wain has Role Models neatly following the classic arc of the buddy comedy: Two guys, trapped together by fate, execute one stupid decision after another before finally realizing that, hey, maybe they could actually accomplish something if they stopped being such schmucks. Like any formula, it can work if done well, and Role Models is strewn with enough serendipities to make it a worthy variation on the dudes-grow-up genre.
For 10 years, Danny (Paul Rudd) has held down the same soul-draining job, visiting schools to hawk an energy drink called Minotaur with his wastrel of a co-worker, Wheeler (Seann William Scott). Danny is burned out, emotionally remote, and virtually incapable of a nonsarcastic utterance. On the day that his live-in girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) finally breaks up with him, he acts out by damaging some public property with the giant Minotaur-shaped truck he and Wheeler drive to work.
In lieu of a jail term, the miscreants are sentenced to community service as volunteers at a Big Brother-style mentoring program run by recovering addict Gayle Sweeney (the thoroughly nutty Jane Lynch, a regular Christopher Guest player). Danny's assigned to Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a hopeless teenage dweeb obsessed with medieval role-playing games, while Wheeler gets Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a fatherless 10-year-old with a foul mouth and serious anger issues.
The middle section of the movie, in which Danny dispiritedly phones in his big-brothering performance, has most of the best jokes (at least up until the weirdly exhilarating final action sequence, which I'll leave unspoiled except to note that it involves both LARP and KISS). Rudd is the rare actor who can make disengagement engaging. His depressed, affectless Danny remains likable even as he rejects all attempts at human connection. ("It's not you," he assures Augie's parents as he turns down their dinner invitation. "I just hate having dinner with people.") Mintz-Plasse, who played the similarly nerdy McLovin in Superbad, gets across Augie's neediness without compromising the character's dignity. And though Seann William Scott seems to have only one character in his repertoire—the glazed-eyed, full-throttle party animal—he plays it with a manic energy that's a fine foil for Rudd's anomie. I found the Ronnie character gratingly Gary Coleman-esque, but the rest of the audience seemed to love his R-rated non sequiturs.
Especially after Kevin Smith's emotionally stunted Zack and Miri Make a Porno, it's nice to see a dirty-minded romantic comedy (is there any other kind of romantic comedy these days?) in which the sweetness doesn't seem slapped onto the raunch like bad store-bought icing. Role Models may not set its sights very high, but it comes by its emotional payoff honestly. And why isn't Paul Rudd in greater demand as a romantic comedy lead? He's handsome, funny, and smart (he co-wrote this movie with Wain, and many of his best lines sound like on-set improvisation), yet he always seems to be hanging around the corners of other people's movies (the lovelorn co-worker in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the stoned surf instructor in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). In the last scene of Role Models, Rudd turns one of the oldest tricks in the rom-com playbook—the public serenading of one's lady—into a thoroughly satisfying ending. It'd be even more satisfying if this movie got him the plum comic roles he deserves.