Drillbit Taylor

Here it is, the first major sign of weakness in the Judd Apatow comedy juggernaut: “Drillbit Taylor,” a cluttered and clueless effort produced by Apatow, co-written by Seth Rogen (“Superbad”), and featuring barely a whiff of the raucous-but-intelligent humor of previous J.A. productions.

It reads a lot like a junior version of “Superbad,” with two nerds — a fat vulgar one and a thin pensive one — who are best friends and who are joined by a third, even nerdier nerd. Wade (Nate Hartley, the skinny one) and Ryan (Troy Gentile, the fat one) are instant bully-targets when they start high school, and the metal-mouth squeaky-voiced Emmit (David Dorfman, the McLovin of the group) only makes it worse by hanging around them.

Their chief tormenters are Filkins (Alex Frost), a garden-variety high school psychopath, and Ronnie (Josh Peck), his grinning accomplice. I thought they were co-bullies and equals, but when Wade and Ryan go to the principal (Stephen Root), they only mention Filkins. So I guess Ronnie is just a sidekick. He should get a better agent.

Anyway, the principal offers no help because he’s convinced Filkins is a good kid. (See, idiots? You should have told him about Ronnie.) This leaves the boys with no choice but to post an ad online seeking a bodyguard. This ad somehow comes to the attention of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless Army veteran who evidently has ready access to the Internet. (Sorry, movie, but one glimpse of him sneaking a look at a coffee shop patron’s laptop doesn’t count as an explanation.) Drillbit, an easy-going, laid-back kind of homeless guy who doesn’t seem the least bit put out by being homeless, says he’ll use his Army training to protect the boys. But his real plan is to cozy up to them so he can sneak into their houses and steal their stuff.

This tangent is drastically unnecessary. It’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll have a change of heart and commit himself fully to helping the boys after all, so why not start there? Must we endure the standard discovery of betrayal and the subsequent hurt feelings and the inevitable reconciliation? Is it not enough that we must watch the same formula in all romantic comedies? Oy.

To effect his plan, Drillbit infiltrates the boys’ school, posing as a substitute teacher. Somehow he actually winds up subbing for some actual classes (this makes no sense whatsoever), and from that vantage point he can harass the bullies from the inside. He also commences a romance with an English teacher (Leslie Mann).

And that’s where we arrive at our focus problem. Who is the star of this movie, Drillbit or the boys? The movie is named after Drillbit, but the story is really about Wade and Ryan. The screenplay passed through several writers’ hands — John Hughes wrote the original treatment — and I think it got muddied up in all the rewrites. The direction by Steven Brill (“Little Nicky,” “Without a Paddle”) certainly does not bring any clarity to the project.

The worst part is, it starts out OK. There are a few laughs in the beginning, and I like the kids playing the lead roles. The premise has potential. But it very quickly loses whatever steam it had, to the point that the last half hour feels unbearably drawn out. In a good comedy, it doesn’t matter if the plot is overly familiar or if the story has foregone conclusions. When you’re looking at your watch and mumbling, “Get on with it already,” that’s a bad sign.

C- (1 hr., 42 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, a lot of vulgarity, a naked butt, some violence.)