I went into Drillbit Taylor with lowered expectations. I missed the movie during its March theatrical release, but had read the negative-trending reviews. The failed suicide attempt of Owen Wilson cast a shadow over things, certainly, making for an awkward sell with the public, given that its famously wry and sunny, butterscotch lead couldn’t or didn’t fully press the flesh on the movie’s behalf. The result was a $32 million domestic shrug. The truth is, though, Drillbit Taylor quite plainly doesn’t work on its own terms. A comedy that doesn’t know whether it wants to be a movie about high school essentially for adults (see: Election) or a slapstick-y farce for kids, it’s about five percent inspiration and 95 percent downhill coasting. Actually, make that about 90 percent coasting, and five percent Steven Brill suckitude. I’d forgot how bad of a director he really is.
Written by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen, who met on Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, Drillbit Taylor centers around three freshmen with varying levels of geekiness — Wade (Nate Hartley), Ryan (Troy Gentile, above left), or “T-Dog,” as he insists on being called, and Emmit (David Dorfman, above bottom right) — who end up as targets for bully Terry (Alex Frost), an emancipated minor who has the school’s principal (Stephen Root) convinced of the sincerity of his “welcoming hazing.” Pooling their financial resources, the kids hire whom they think to be an ex-military specialist turned bodyguard, a guy who name-drops Sylvester Stallone and Bobby Brown as former clients.
In reality, though, Drillbit (Wilson) is a homeless dude loafing it in Santa Monica, showering on the beach and looking for the next scratch-off lottery ticket payday that will score him a plane ticket to British Columbia, where he inexplicably wants to move. So at first Drillbit looks merely to take the kids for a ride, taking their meager cash offering and raiding Wade’s home for items he can pawn. A few of his homeless pals, though, convince him to milk the situation for further benefit, and eventually the kids and their plight start to matter to Drillbit. Wan advice morphs into a more hands-on approach, which culminates with a massive showdown at a party thrown by Terry.
There’s the potential here for a coarse, Bad Santa-type romp, but the edges are all sanded down to yawning, test audience-approved memes and lessons, never mind the (theatrical release) restrictions of a PG-13 rating. A couple love interests are crammed in — Wade swoons for classmate Brooke (Valerie Tian), while Drillbit hooks up with a teacher played by Leslie Mann, producer Apatow’s wife — to negligible effect, and gaping holes of illogicality (in a bit lazily nipped from School of Rock, Drillbit winds up as a substitute teacher, somehow heading up a variety of classes) pepper the movie’s second and third acts.
I waited with anticipation for the arrival of bit player Danny McBride, who helped make Hot Rod a hoot, what with his belligerent energy and bizarr-o proclamations (“This is my hat now — totally my hat!”), but he first pops up 16 minutes into the movie and, though he serves as a sort of devil-on-shoulder and increasingly antagonistic figure to Drillbit, he never feels particularly well integrated into the proceedings. Not that he’s alone in that regard — the movie lurches about when asking audiences to consider the aforementioned female characters, or a parental meeting with the principal.
The film scores a few points when Rogen and Brown’s touch with cracked specificity pokes through the carefully crafted studio notes that make so much of the rest of the movie feel like a store-bought painting of dogs playing poker. The boys’ fate is cemented in savvy, silly fashion when Wade and Ryan wear the same, very distinctive shirt on the first day of school. There’s a freestyle-rap battle where Ryan slams Terry, and a bit where Drillbit shows the kids The Untouchables as evidence of the “hold-back” method, wherein one or two peers restrain a yapping-mad friend, who doesn’t really want to fight anyway. A motorist also scrawls “not for pot” on a handout to the panhandling Drillbit, explaining, “Now I bet you’ll feel really silly if you try to buy weed with that money.” Unfortunately, these inspired moments are few and far between, and director Brill (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds), who can’t locate the pulse of a scene without resorting to static master shots, throws in plenty of tired physical gags in an inartful attempt to skew the energy of the piece.
Housed in a regular Amray case, this extended and unrated version Drillbit Taylor prolongs the unruly narrative in what seems like relatively pointless fashion (what great character insights are possibly gleaned?), but at least comes with a decent array of bonus features, starting with an audio commentary track featuring Brill, co-writer Brown and the three young leads. There’s a four-minute gag reel in which McBride is advised to lose the improvisational “ass” from a scene, Gentile accidentally pulls up some grass turf, Brill frequently shouts out lines, and Wilson is told, by a ringer kiddie extra, that “Vince Vaughn is much funnier than you.” As with most other Apatow-produced flicks, there’s also four minutes of “line-o-rama” excised material, the bulk of which is funnier than around 85 percent of what’s actually in the movie.
In addition to more deleted scenes, a clutch of five featurettes, ranging from three to six minutes, offer up specialized looks at Brill (who jokingly mock-punches his adolescent charges in the face) and McBride (who observes, “I play a homeless guy, but he has more clothes than I do in real life”), as well as Gentile’s training for the rap battle, a sequence involving a pulled fire safety sprinkler, and Frost and fellow screen bully Josh Peck. Finally, Rogen phones in from the set of another film for a 14-minute phone chat with co-writer Brown, in which they reminisce about a planned opening sequence, scratched for budgetary reasons, showing Drillbit’s military service in Iraq (“We should have just used footage from Behind Enemy Lines,” Rogen moans). There’s also talk about studio notes and other compromises large and small, before the whole thing devolves into a discussion about the recent Rambo sequel, which Rogen enthusiastically deems a “humanitarian wet dream.” Again, a
good portion of this chat is much more interesting than the actual finished product. Conspicuously absent in all the extras, though? Wilson himself. To purchase the film via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) B+ (Disc)