At their essence, high school movies are almost all about the same thing: the terror of not being socially accepted. It's a fear that holds true in real life, but it lives next to another one: failing school and ending up a bum. The high-school comedy Drillbit Taylor looks at both sides of the equation: misfit teens and a man who's pretty close to that worse-case scenario you always imagined. Luckily for them, the next generation of freaks and geeks gets a leg up from co-screenwriter Seth Rogen and producer Judd Apatow, working in part from an old John Hughes story treatment.
The three dweebs in question correlate loosely to the trio in Superbad, another high-school movie produced by Apatow and co-written by Rogen. "Freakishly skinny" Wade (Nate Hartley) is the Michael Cera-esque everynerd, best pals with Ryan (Troy Gentile), a husky boy with a 'fro and attitude (like Jonah Hill). On the sure-to-be-traumatic first day of school they have the bad fortune to be befriend Emmit (David Dorfman of The Ring), a nerd in Broadway-musical T-shirts that they treat like a stray dog who won't go away (read McLovin', if he weren't so uncool that he's cool). That first day of school also includes an epic embarrassment at the hands of two bullies: Filkins (Alex Frost of Elephant) and his lapdog Ronnie (Josh Peck of The Wackness).
Of course, Filkins is not only the worst kind of bully, a brute who manages to keep his crimes invisible to authority figures; he's also an emancipated minor. In the cracked universe of the film, this status makes him an untouchable. "He's legally an adult," shrugs the nightmarishly unsympathetic principal (the great Stephen Root). "He answers to no one." Terrified, the boys hatch a plan to hire a bodyguard with their meager savings. Thus, the film is a farcical cousin to the 1980 film My Bodyguard (Adam Baldwin contributes a cameo to seal the deal).
Enter Owen Wilson as Drillbit Taylor, an ex-Army Ranger discharged, he says, for "unauthorized heroism." Of course, he's full of it, a homeless thief who showers at the beach and dreams of relocating to the Great White North. Wilson proves again that he's a quick-witted comedic treasure—he's the sort of actor who gets hired to make mediocre movies almost good by his sheer force of comic will. Some of his best moments here find him with a distracted air, thinking aloud some strategic point for the benefit of the sadly rapt kids. Wilson plays Taylor as a man with just enough skill to fleece ninth-graders with tall tales, ill-considered advice, and the scraps he picked up from an upbringing on action movies, as in this exchange:
Drillbit: You'd be surprised, anything can be turned into a weapon of mayhem or destruction.
Wade: Even a puppy?
Drillbit: Especially a puppy. The Germans used 'em in World War I. Der Hunden Shtormen. Lightning Dog. They'd attach dynamite to them. Rommel did it, Jerry bastard...
Since the film is seldom played in a realist mode, more such left-field humor would be appreciated.
Instead, we get a mostly conventional approach, culminating in a climactic confrontation of the good guys and the bad guys. But whenever we begin to invest in the film as a film with some core emotional truth, the filmmakers will take a lazy plot shortcut (Taylor's infiltration of the school is ridiculous) or allow a character to be patently unrealistic for a laugh (lovely Leslie Mann, playing a teacher who's a slut for losers, comes off like the butt of a joke). The kids are amusing and the film has a number of turns by comedy vets (Danny McBride, as the alpha dog in Drillbit's pack of homeless friends and Nancy Walls and Ian Roberts as Wade's mother and stepdad, stand out). But the film without a star talent like Wilson would disappear like a wisp of smoke.
In the Hughes tradition, Drillbit Taylor cheerily exploits—for males, anyway—primal emotions from the adolescent years: the terror of facing a bully, the comfort of friends, the exhilaration of standing up for oneself, and the need for a male role model. Drillbit falsely earns the trust of the boys with empty promises ("Just because you don't see me doesn't mean I'm not there"), is exposed as yet another adult betrayer, and (spoiler alert) redeems himself. It's an amusing but uninspired story, with a script that underachieves as much as the title character.
Though I should have been (as this is a Judd Apatow production), I somehow wasn't prepared for the deluxe nature of this film's treatment on Blu-Ray. Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition offers a cut that's four minutes longer (the added scenes are pointed out by director Steven Brill in a commentary track) and a generous helping of entertaining extras, all presented in HD. Out of respect to Owen Wilson's difficultes around the time of the film, his presence does not extend to any interview footage, but he is of course present in tons of outtakes and beind-the-scenes footage. On Blu-Ray the film looks as new as it should (to my eye, it's a bit bright, with a slightly "blown-out" appearance, but generally as vivid as we've come to expect), and comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that replicates the theater experience.
First up is the commentary by Brill, writer Kristofor Brown, and actors Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley and David Dorfman. The kids come in mostly one at a time (with a bit of overlap) to prevent chaos, as Brill and Brown keep the steady beat. There's some specific chat about the production, but in keeping with an Apatow movie, the commentary keeps the tone engagingly light and chatty (one small gap in the commentary seems to wipe out some Nate Hartley comments on Owen Wilson.)
Surprisingly, Seth Rogen gets on board the special edition in "The Writers Get a Chance to Talk: Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen" (14:00), a very enjoyable opportunity to eavesdrop on the old friends as they share thoughts about the script's development and some ideas that didn't make it to screen, with plenty of good-natured joking along the way. The Deleted/Extended Scenes (23:32 with a "Play All" option) are a must: "Urinal Assult" (:38), "Trophy Case" (1:25), "Sidewalk Café" (2:12), "Bulking Up" (:53), "Bodyguard 'D'" (1:48), "Bodyguard 'Frank'" (1:54), "Training – Woods" (1:27), "Training – Log" (1:12), "Massage Chair" (:53), "Training – Pool 1" (:58), "Training – Pool 2" (:21), "Teacher’s Lounge" (1:42), "Detention" (:49), "Don Teaches History" (1:35), "Post Robbery" (:52), "Pawn Shop – Night" (:36)," Wade Family Dinner" (1:48), "Drillbit Teaches Gym" (1:33), and "Nurse’s Office" (:52).
Many viewers will go straight to "Line-O-Rama" (4:24), a familiar Apatow feature cutting together alternate takes on improv drop-in lines. "Panhandle" (3:07) is also a Line-O-Rama, specifically for the scene of comedy actors driving up to Wilson for demeaning conversations. More cool stuff ensues: the "Gag Reel" (4:01); "Kids on the Loose" (2:41), with the kids goofing around for the behind-the-scenes camera; "Directing Kids" (3:02), with Brill explaining (and also kidding a bit) about working with the young cast; "Billy O'Neill: Superkid" (2:42), showcasing the young whiz kid of comedy; and "Bully" (2:59), which collates behind-the-scenes footage of Alex Frost and Josh Peck.
The next five featurettes give a look at the shooting of specific sequences, with comments by cast and crew. "Bodyguard" (2:55) is a behind-the-scenes piece on the bodyguard interviews, with comments by most of the actors, including Adam Baldwin. "Trading Punches" (1:34) shows the planning and execution of the memorable backyard scene. Kristofor Brown explains the scene's intentions, and we see Brill and Apatow coaching the actors on set. "Rap Off" (3:35) shows Gentile working with his rap coach before shooting the sequence, and "Sprinkler Day" (3:24)covers the cast and high-school set getting doused. Lastly, "Filkins Fight" (7:15) shows the stunt choreography and shooting of the climax.
"The Life of Don" (2:14) and "The Real Don: Danny McBride" (5:46) highlight star-in-the-making McBride (The Pineapple Express), the former with an in-character interview and the latter shadowing the actor for his dry observations. The extras wrap up with two Theatrical Trailers: "International Trailer" (1:48) and "Bodyguard" (2:35). All told, it's an energetic package that serves, in particular, to showcase the personalities and skill of the on-screen talent.
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