A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 111 mins.


Owen Wilson: Drillbit Taylor / Leslie Mann: Lisa / Troy Gentile: Ryan / Nate Hartley: Wade / David Dorfman: Emmit / Alex Frost: Filkins / Josh Peck: Ronnie

Directed by Steven Brill / Written by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen

DRILLBIT TAYLOR is a would-be McLovin-sized high school comedy about how three hopeless geeks are able to get some serious comeuppance against a hideously foul and deranged bully.  The film has talent behind the scenes, at least from a producer and screenplay level: Judd Apatow (who directed two of the best comedies of the last two years in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP) sits in the producer's chair and Seth Rogen (who starred in KNOCKED UP and co-wrote the consistent high school riot that was SUPERBAD) is co-screenwriter.  Despite that, DRILLBIT TAYLOR is a clunky, inconsistently unfunny, and oftentimes mean-spirited farce that never really hints at Apatow and Rogen's fierce comic talents.  

It has been said that Rogen wrote the script for SUPERBAD when he was barely in his teens.  That film was a scatological riot and effectively blended lewd and crude raunchiness with a low-key sentimentality with its characters.  By direct comparisons, DRILLBIT TAYLOR feels like it was written by a prepubescent boy and makes SUPERBAD feels like a documentary.  The gawkingly meager and screechy voiced protagonists are caricatures, as are all of the other adult figures in the film, not to mention that the high school bully is so far removed from any plane of reality in the level and breadth of his hostility and violence.  

Call me crazy, but it’s simply not fun to watch a bunch of meek and physically diminutive kids get pounded on and physical tormented by a hoody-wearing creep that looks like he could be the next perpetrator of a Columbine-sized disaster.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the bully is played by an actor who starred in Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT as a thug that engaged in a Columbine-sized killing spree.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR itself is hardly original (it takes its premise largely from a 1980 film called MY BODYGUARD which also involves bullied teens hiring a bodyguard for protection).  The star of that film was Adam Baldwin who played the bodyguard and if you blink you may miss his cameo in TAYLOR as a man that applies for the job of protecting the troubled kids.  He seems to be wearing the exact same outfit that he wore in MY BODYGUARD and ironically states that the idea of kids hiring someone to protect themselves from bullies is “stupid.”  This was arguably the slyest moment in a film genuinely lacking slyness. 

Then again, after that moment I thought that this in-joke cameo will be totally lost on people that have not seen MY BODYGUARD, not to mention that many kids in the theatre will never get this reference, which leads me to question its inclusion altogether.  The film is PG-13 (we don’t get the insidiously vulgar verbal gymnastics that permeated SUPERBAD, but the film fairly potty-mouthed) and is clearly targeted for a youth audience.  Yet, why make the film so banal and humorless for the adult audience members?  Attempts at comedy here are mixed and the film’s attempts at heart-warming melodrama feels false.  Even worse is that DRILLBIT TAYLOR is a film on full-on Idiot Plot mode. 

Film critic Roger Ebert defines “The Idiot Plot Syndrome” as "Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots."  Typically, the teens in high school comedies are shrewd and smart and the adult authority figures around them are the fools, but in DRILLBIT TAYLOR it seems that everyone is an idiot, kids included. 

Just consider the plot.  We meet three young nerds of varying stereotypical characteristics:  There is the skinny and monumentally weak nerd named Wade (Nate Hartley), the overweight and fairly overbearing nerd named Ryan (Troy Gentile, whose tough, trash talking mouth and outward façade reminded me of Jonah Hill) and the tiny, Hobbit-sized” nerd named Emmitt (David Dorfman, whose voice is literally as appealing as finger nails on a chalkboard).  The first day of high school is an unmitigated disaster as they have been drawn into the pits of bullying hell by one senior SOB named Filkins (Alex Frost, who plays his bully with the snarling rage and wild eyed insanity of a chronic wife beater).  This guy is not a normal bully; he’s a complete sociopath and nutcase that commits social atrocities against the kids so ill tempered and vile that he should be thrown in jail without hesitation.  The fact that his acts are so brutal and malicious kind of grinds the film’s laughs to a halt.  

Yet, in this film’s idiotic world, there are no student witnesses to his actions that will come to the hapless nerds’ defense with the idiotic school principal (played by Steven Root), not to mention that there's no apparent teachers in the school that ever see these deplorable acts.  It is revealed that the school has security cameras, but the principal never seems willing the check them.  At one point he takes the bully’s side by saying that no one is guilty until proven so.  Of course, he never checks the tapes, which conveniently sets up the bully as an untouchable.   If a real bully existed like this in any real-world school today, it would represent a major failure of the entire educational system. 

Needless to say, the boys need help, seeing as the principal thinks the bully is “okay,” not to mention that one of the boys’ fathers thinks that bullying builds toughness in others.  So, the trio posts an ad online for a school bodyguard.  They get a series of prospective hires (in a montage that never hits any high comic beats), but then they hit gold when they meet Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), who professes to be a former bodyguard to Sylvester Stallone and a former army soldier trained in black ops martial arts.  He works exceptionally cheap, which is not surprising considering that he is a washed up bum that only saw half a day of work in the army and went AWOL because he secretly hates violence and conflict...and the scorching heat of the Middle East.  All Taylor wants to do is take the kids for a ride, make some quick cash, and immigrate to Canada...eh. 

The kids in the film are performed by bright personalities, but they are hopelessly dopey and idiotic in the film.  They are too clueless to ever question Taylor’s unorthodox defense techniques, nor are they ever shocked to visit him at his home, which is essentially a stitched up tent in a nearby park.  The fact that Taylor is a bum without a residence or legal tender is also never discovered by the kids (wouldn’t a bum also stink to high heaven as well, which is another warning sign that the kids never clue in to).  Also silly is the notion that – even after the bully easily punches out Taylor – the kids still don’t put all of the pieces together.  

Perhaps the most idiotic element of the film is Taylor’s undercover assignment to watch the boys as he serves as a substitute teacher for what appears to be weeks.  Never once is he asked for credentials, identification, or any concrete proof that he is actually a teacher and not a bum.  Then there is the tacked on romantic subplot involving a hot English teacher (played by Leslie Mann, who gave such a firecracker of an assured comic performance in KNOCKED UP) that very quickly falls for Taylor and – yup – never sees right through this guy.  We are then given the obligatory emotional moment where she discovers that Taylor really is not a teacher and royally dumps his arse.  In KNOCKED UP Mann played a such a tough and empowered woman and here she is  reduced to playing a starry-eyed tart.  The principal then steps in after he discovers that the sub is a fraud and tells concerned parents that he has security-taped footage of Taylor to give over to the cops.  Apparently, all taped footage of the bully beating the collective tar out of the kids simply does not exist.  How idiotic is that?

DRILLBIT TAYLOR is not utterly bankrupted of laughs.  Owen Wilson – who has made a career of playing perpetually smooth talking, wiseass, and disarmingly likeable losers – easily steps into the title role and has plenty of humorous zingers (like when he tries to teach the kids defense and states, “In addition to the Chinese Kung Fu I’ll show you a little Mexican Judo, as in 'Judon't know who you messin' with, homz'”).  The problem is that the affable presence and easy-going demeanor of Wilson is saddled with a weakly cobbled together script that is artificial and lumbering.  The teen nerds have heart and the actors seem to have some nice chemistry, but they and everyone else seems to wander aimlessly through this Idiot Plot without a brain in their heads.   How the boys and everyone else around them can't see through the obvious transparency of Taylor’s reality is befuddling. 

There is also an unsavory, hypocritical message buried within the film.  DRILLBIT TAYLOR goes out of its way to profess the old adage that bullying and violence is wrong, but in the end – and by the film’s conclusion – it seems to embody a philosophy that the only way to combat bullying is with a dirty, street fight level of aggression perpetrated back.  Certainly, there is pleasure in seeing the teen villain finally get his clock cleaned by the nerds and finally – and inevitably – by Taylor, but the tone here is a bit irresponsible.  This has the potential to be a good-natured comedy and is instead overrun by a level of subverted nastiness.   

Ultimately, not even Wilson’s affable goofball shenanigans can rescue DRILLBIT TAYLOR from being nothing more than a regurgitated high school formula comedy that hopes to capture SUPERBAD lightning in a bottle twice.  The film is fairly bereft of hearty laughs, the conflict and characters are of the cookie-cutter variety, and the whole enterprise seems neutered of the charm, flair, and comic wit that Apatow and Rogen have displayed with their other successful comedies (this may or may not be attributed to the director, Steven Brill, who previously helmed the inordinately terrible LITTLE NICKY, MR. DEEDS, and WITHOUT A PADDLE).  Rogen and Apatow are too gifted to have their names associated with this belabored conglomeration of dumb clichés.  They are also too smart to make a film driven by the weak engine of the Idiot Plot.

  H O M E