Drillbit Taylor (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

After a string of successes that have catapulted their members into the Hollywood elite, Team Apatow has chosen Easter weekend 2008 to lay an egg. Drillbit Taylor is a study in mediocrity and the only way anyone would be aware it came from Judd Apatow and his posse would be to read the credits. It saddles the talented comedic actor Owen Wilson with a virtually laughless script and forces him to wallow in a pond of shallow, artificial sentimentality. This is the kind of thing that Apatow normally skews. Here, director Steven Brill, abetted by screenwriters Kristofer Brown & Seth Rogan, embraces it.

Rogan also co-wrote Superbad, and the two movies have a similar starting point. Both focus on a trio of teenage geeks trying to find a modicum of acceptance in a society where they're outcasts. It's a time-honored tradition for crude high school comedies, dating back to Revenge of the Nerds. There's a key difference between Superbad and Drillbit Taylor, however, and it goes beyond the level of laughs provided by the respective screenplays. In Superbad, the protagonists, although developed on a foundation of clich├ęs, become living, breathing human beings (at least two of them do). In Drillbit Taylor, they're walking stereotypes. Worse, these aren't merely nerd caricatures. They're stupid nerd caricatures. Anyone who can't see through the title character's transparent scheme deserves to get beaten up and ridiculed on a regular basis. If Juno represented a major step forward for teen movies, Drillbit Taylor fails to hold any of the gained ground.

Drillbit Taylor introduces us to three bully-bait students: skinny Wade (Nate Hartley), fat Ryan (Troy Gentile), and hobbit-sized Emmitt (David Dorfman). It's their first day of high school and things couldn't be worse. Already, they have drawn the ire of the baddest of the seniors, Filkins (Alex Frost), who is determined to make their lives miserable for the next year. But, after taking Filkins' abuse for a week, they decide upon a plan: hire a bodyguard. Their choice, determined more by price than ability, is Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), an ex-military man who talks a good game but is actually a homeless guy trying to make enough money to emigrate to Canada. As one might expect, Drillbit turns out to be less than impressive in the bodyguard department, as is proven when, shortly after he is hired, Wade takes an unimpeded fist to the face from Filkins.

The "Apatow formula" is pretty simple: raunchy comedy, likeable characters, and a dash of sweetness (but nothing too sweet). Drillbit Taylor fulfills the third characteristic but falls short in the other two. The "raunchy" element is significantly limited by the PG-13 rating. There aren't many laughs and it's tough to feel much for characters who are so artificial. Even the nerdiest nerds couldn't identify with these guys. I'll admit that the romance between Wade and Brooke (Valerie Tian) is cute, but this is the kind of subplot that the term "throwaway" was designed for. There's some satisfaction to be had when the bully gets his comeuppance, but that's because it's always enjoyable to see bad guys get their asses kicked, no matter how uninspired the movie is in which it happens.

Little needs to be said about Owen Wilson's work in Drillbit Taylor: he's a gifted actor stuck with a bad script that requires him (or his stunt double) to show his buns. His young co-stars, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, and David Dorfman, aren't as effective. In fact, Hartley is downright awful - there are a number of "serious" scenes where the camera catches him smirking, and he seems clueless when it comes to the difference between comedy and light drama. This could in part be the fault of director Brill, who may lack the aptitude to cull the best performances from his young protagonists. A resume that includes the detestable Without a Paddle does not inspire confidence.

In consideration of Team Apatow's recent reputation, I'm willing to call Drillbit Taylor a "bump in the road," and hope that's all it is. Make no mistake, however, this is a big drop in quality from anything boating Apatow involvement in the past few years. There's an autopilot feeling to the project that suggests it was shepherded through its production by a group more interested in creating a marketable product than making a movie. It ends up feeling like a paint-by-numbers affair that isn't as funny or enjoyable as many viewers will expect it to be.

Drillbit Taylor (United States, 2008)

Director: Steven Brill
Cast: Owen Wilson, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, David Dorfman, Alex Frost, Leslie Mann, Valerie Tian
Screenplay: Kristofer Brown & Seth Rogan
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1