The absurdist writer/director/actor David Wain, having scored cult hits with “Wet Hot American Summer” and “The Ten,” seeks to bring his odd genius into the mainstream with “Role Models,” and whaddaya know, it actually works. He and his pals from The State, the bizarre sketch-comedy troupe that had a show on MTV in the mid ’90s, are involved on both sides of the camera, bringing a subversive streak to what is otherwise essentially a very formulaic comedy.
The plot is simple: Two screw-ups are court-ordered to perform community service by being Big Brothers to troubled boys. Danny (Paul Rudd) is 35 years old and embittered over the realization that he has wasted 10 years of his life working for Minotaur, an energy drink that Danny promotes at schools as part of an anti-drug presentation. Furthermore, his lawyer girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), has just broken up with him. His best friend, Wheeler (Seann William Scott), is perfectly content working for Minotaur — he’s the one who gets to wear the minotaur costume — and has no use for introspection. He loves the rock band KISS, and he loves scoring with hot chicks. That is his life.
Danny and Wheeler are involved in a bit of public recklessness and, to avoid jail, agree to work with Sturdy Wings, a Big Brothers-style organization run by Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch), a former drug addict with a propensity for sharing too much about her past. Danny, a snarky nit-picker who misses Beth because “where am I gonna find a girl who hates all the same things I do?,” is assigned to work with Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a hopelessly nerdy teenager who devotes all his time and energy to a live-action role-playing group of knights, warriors, and wizards. (The film’s climax occurs at one of this group’s key battles, where the soldiers whack each other with foam swords while spouting faux-medieval dialogue.) Meanwhile, Wheeler gets Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a smooth-talking 10-year-old from a broken home who has burned through several Sturdy Wings volunteers already, each one lasting an average of one day.
You know what happens next: grudging cooperation, eventual respect, everybody learns and grows and hugs, yada yada. There are about two dozen movies like this every year: movies about contrasting characters thrust together by circumstances who learn to like each other. Most of these don’t even try to break out of their cookie-cutter structures. “Role Models,” on the other hand is self-aware. It knows its story is a cliché — for example, Wheeler, having grown attached to Ronnie but fearing he’ll be locked up for failing to complete his Sturdy Wings obligation, asks the boy’s mom, “When I get out of prison, can I hang out with your 10-year-old son?” I admire a movie that can summarize its own ridiculousness so casually.
Danny, Wheeler, and the two boys are all blissfully immature, providing a symphony of sarcasm, obscenity, and orneriness. The humor isn’t raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy, either — it’s genuinely hilarious. (The screenplay, originally written by Timothy Dowling, was significantly overhauled by Rudd, Wain, and Wain’s old State buddy Ken Marino.) Rudd and Scott have honed their skills — sneering mockery and frat-boy idiocy, respectively — in many prior films and work so well together that I won’t be surprised if Scott becomes part of the Judd Apatow crew (where Rudd is a member in good standing, of course). Bobb’e J. Thompson, at 12 years old already a veteran of half a dozen films and several TV shows, is a firecracker as the motor-mouthed Ronnie. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse, in his first post-McLovin role, continues to make his intrinsic nerdiness work to his advantage.
Wain and company aren’t afraid to let their surreal, post-modern sense of humor creep in here and there, with occasional oddball supporting characters and non sequitur punchlines to keep the audience pleasantly baffled. In what has already been an unprecedentedly successful year for extremely funny R-rated comedies, “Role Models” manages to carve out a niche of its own: the formulaic, mildly post-modern, potty-mouthed After School Special.
B+ (1 hr., 39 min.; )