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When I think of Role Models (2008), the film I’ve seen more often than any other in the last decade—except maybe Colossal Youth—the word that comes to mind is wise. The best of recent American comedies, i.e., the most particular, have trouble off the continent because of their particularities—you might say a discrete sense of humour by and for white North American males of a certain generation. Role Models is one of these films, acknowledges it, pushes it to its limits, and in the end delivers much, much more than an Apatowian bromance. It’s an improbably liberating film where people act and speak what they think, and it allows us to reflect on what happens when this transpires. (It’s also consistently funny, but humour, as noted, is subjective. Not everyone I suspect laughs each time Seann William Scott’s Wheeler drives home his interpretation of KISS’ “Love Gun” with the line, “See Ronnie, his dick is his gun!”) Precisely directed by David Wain and brilliantly performed with perfect comic timing and delivery by his Lewis and Martin (Paul Rudd and Scott), this is a comedy for Straubians.
With its Tashlinesque titular nod, this double-buddy picture is poised at a kind of precipice, bifurcating approaches to dealing with the concepts of both “roles” and “models” in a political context where both are called into question on a daily basis. With Bush, the idea of a political role model completely vanished for Hollywood (kind of like how celebrity role models disintegrated for the rest of the world); Role Models, a Lubitschian work whose high concept finds its lead duo being sentenced to 150 hours of community service, is a step towards reinvigorating the concept anew, presenting a film where it might be possible in the Obama era for a bad role model to change, maybe, into a good one. Along the way it illustrates that there’s bound to be backstabbing, recidivism, and boob-obsessed pre-teens prone to saying “motherfucker.”
Like the marvelous Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Role Models’ is a joyful cynicism, but it’s playing with more cards in the deck, gaining more from variations with classical forms than Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s explosion of near-anarchy. In the ‘00s, Ferrell made an eventually tiresome game of playing Bush over and over again, conflating the role of authority with that of the fool; Rudd, who possesses the traditional attributes of a supporting actor, here assumes the role of a now-classical ‘70s antihero, with a strong anti-authoritarian stance. When the film begins, he has “lost the ability to take any joy in life”—and, literally, won’t bow down to the king. By the end, he’s forced into a position of authority, but brings to it an ineffable, cynically tinged joy (the snippet in a montage perfectly set to “Mr. Blue Sky” of Rudd on his knees sword-fighting with Christopher Mintz-Plasse is one of the most purely jubilant moments of the last decade).
With a script rewritten from scratch by Wain, Rudd, and Ken Marino (The State alums litter the supporting cast), Role Models indeed, fabricates its own culture—LAIRE, the live-action medieval role-playing game—and in the final act uncomfortably immerses us in a mythic world, where our protagonists have founded a new country, challenging us to accept its off-kilter reality. It’s a slippage which occurs on another level throughout the film, as its characters find community, if not being itself, by way of popular culture references, even those they don’t understand (“Who the fuck is Marvin Hamlisch?”). Role Models takes it one step forward by constantly rewriting, whether in a fake-yet-true Wings song, “Love Take Me Down to the Streets,”or Rudd’s closing love serenade, extemporaneously turning Peter Criss’ “Beth” into a mashup of comedy-of-remarriage capper and celebrity namedrops. This not only recalls Rudd’s early refusal to sing karaoke, but also a lame attempt to woo Elizabeth Banks’ Beth back by quoting from various romantic comedies (“You complete me…You had me at hello…Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters?”). Rudd’s “Beth” gives Role Models its classical ending, but in a film also liberally littered with abysmal role models—from Jane Lynch’s priceless recovering addict to Mintz-Plasse’s insufferable parents—leaves the question of change very much open. Everyone associated with this film should be proud.
Mark Peranson is editor and publisher of Cinema Scope.