If only those of us who were unpopular in grade school could've known Drillbit Taylor. If we had, he would've taught us how to fight, embarrassed the bullies and given us the confidence to talk to girls. Yeah, that would've shown 'em.
Of course, that's not realistic. And neither is Drillbit Taylor, a second-rate, sporadically funny movie produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and co-written by Seth Rogen (Superbad).
The nerds in need are the lanky Wade (Nate Hartley), the plump Ryan (Troy Gentile) and the undersized, squeaky-voiced Emmit (David Dorfman). After they're mercilessly ridiculed for no good reason during their first week of high school by bullies Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck), they hire a bodyguard.
Enter the titular Drillbit (Owen Wilson), a homeless man who was supposedly discharged from the military for "unauthorized heroism." He takes the kids under his wing (literally), and even goes so far as to pose as a substitute teacher, at which point he becomes smitten with Lisa (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife), an English teacher, and tortures Filkins and Ronnie.
The initial premise can work as a comedy, but as written by Rogen and Kristofor Brown (based on a story by the king of teen comedies, John Hughes), the screenplay is too scattershot. Drillbit isn't really interested in helping the kids—he's only after their money so he can skip town, and not even the irrepressibly charming Owen Wilson can get us to really like him. And because Drillbit is shady and not all that funny, the supposedly endearing story never clicks.
Director Steven Brill (Mr. Deeds) should've made things simpler. There's no need for Drillbit to have a negative edge, and the subplot with him and Lisa is a waste of time because it fails to get us to like him more. Wade's crush on fellow student Brooke (Valerie Tian) is fine, but his brutish stepdad (Ian Roberts) and two future-bully stepbrothers (Casey and Dylan Boersma) add nothing. These scenes are supposed to rub Wade's unkind predicament even further into his face, but they go nowhere, aren't funny and only serve to articulate how useless adult/authority figures are in teen comedies. Filkins is a believable bad guy, but Frost gives him a heinous, menacing laugh that sounds like the bullying Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story.
Wade, Ryan and Emmit—all of whom are lucky that they're not afflicted by early teenage acne—are pitiable and quintessential underdogs. Watching the movie, one gets the sense that this is a de facto prequel to Superbad, which Rogen both starred in and wrote. Ryan and Wade are clearly younger versions of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera's characters, respectively, and Dorfman's Emmit is bound to have a fake ID under the name McLovin.
That Drillbit Taylor eagerly tries to channel the chaotic energy of teen angst so spiritedly exemplified by Superbad is fine, but the fact that it isn't nearly as funny is a sad disappointment.