Do you hear that? That shrill, shrieking sound coming from your local multiplex? That would be the Judd Apatow machine slowly, steadily winding down after humming along so brilliantly for so long.
It brings no joy to report this. After all, this is a critic who gave four stars to "Knocked Up" and laughed consistently throughout "Superbad." But for all its silly charm, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" didn't exactly sing to audiences and Apatow's latest comedy, "Drillbit Taylor," is even more one-note.
Apatow produced, Stephen Brill ("Little Nicky") directed and "Knocked Up" star Seth Rogen co-wrote the script about a trio of nerds who hire a bodyguard to protect them from the psychotic bully who terrorizes them at the start of high school. Apatow's radiant, hilarious wife, Leslie Mann, co-stars as an English teacher and, unfortunately, she doesn't get much to do; comedians and comic character actors such as David Koechner, Stephen Root, Beth Littleford and Lisa Lampanelli have bit parts.
They're all old friends and collaborators, revisiting the same territory Apatow mined in his cult-favorite TV series "Freaks and Geeks." At this point, however, it seems like they're just too close to the material - and each other - to know what works and what doesn't. Several times during "Drillbit Taylor," it almost feels as if these guys just ran around the west side of Los Angeles, from the shopping centers to the suburbs, shooting whatever they felt like improvising. Amusing moments sporadically emerge.
Owen Wilson is the same low-key guy as usual, playing the titular Santa Monica homeless dude who pretends to have special ops training to get the gig. ("They say 'An army of one,' but they don't mean it," Drillbit says dreamily, his vague way of explaining why he's no longer in the military.)
Young stars Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile and David Dorfman have a likable, goofy chemistry with each other, though, and the fact that they're up-and-comers and not well-known child actors makes them, and their friendship, more believable.
Newcomer Hartley plays Wade, the smart, sensitive, gangly one. Gentile is his best friend Ryan - or "T-Dog," as he hopes to be called now that he's a high school freshman - a tubby, curly haired loudmouth. Having played a young Jack Black in a couple of movies, here Gentile clearly functions as the Rogen figure. Not surprisingly, that means he also gets the bulk of the zingers in the script Rogen wrote with Kristofor Brown, who worked on Apatow's other TV series, "Undeclared."
Tagging along is Dorfman (co-star of "The Ring" movies) as Emmit, a neurotic runt with braces who has a penchant for wearing T-shirts from Broadway shows.
From day one, an overzealous senior-class thug named Filkins (Alex Frost, one of the bullied kids in Gus Van Sant's "Elephant") makes their life a living hell. Why is he like this? And why does he torment them? He just does. Everything about him seems arbitrary, the result of being too one-dimensionally drawn.
But once you get past the premise, there's just nowhere to go. The delusional Drillbit Taylor feels more like an eccentric character in a recurring "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a real person. He puts these kids through a makeshift boot camp and promises to look out for them always, even when they can't see him. What this actually means is, he plans to get close enough to them to steal stuff from their upper-middle class homes.
Naturally, he will have a change of heart. And naturally, the bully will have his comeuppance. This is not exactly a kick to the head in terms of storytelling.
"Drillbit Taylor," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity. Running time: 102 minutes. Two stars out of four.
'DRILLBIT TAYLOR'MPAA RATING: PG-13 for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
THE VERDICT: ** out of ****