In Drillbit Taylor, a failing-grade comedy about the wishful triumph of high school dorks over high school bullies, the star victims a fat, mouthy clown; a skinny, precocious geek; and a shrimpy, flouncy nerd decide to hire some protection from their two most persistent tormentors. The budget-conscious clients settle on Drillbit (Owen Wilson) as a bodyguard. They don't know, as the audience does, that the nicknamed scammer is actually a homeless Army deserter who squats near the Santa Monica shoreline, panhandles on the freeway off-ramp, and hangs with a like-minded fraternity of cynical bums in the SoCal sunshine. (The sunshine explains Drillbit's most excellent blond hair and even tan.) Nevertheless, the adult shirker goes on to inspire self-confidence in his charges, the kids bring about redemption for their unreliable guardian, and there's even time for a little bonus smoochiness between Drillbit and a smitten fellow educator (Leslie Mann) at the boys' high school because, did I forget to mention, at one point Drillbit passes himself off as a substitute teacher, unchallenged by the principal (Stephen Root), who, in the great comedy tradition of school principals, is a tool.
It's hardly worth going on at much length about the movie, a disordered, dispirited shuffling of flailing-to-be-funny and trying-to-be-empathetic scenes during which (in no particular order), the fat one (Troy Gentile from Nacho Libre) raps, the skinny one (newcomer Nate Hartley) crushes on a cute Asian-American classmate, and the shrimpy one (David Dorfman from The Ring) all but shrieks to anyone with an ear for such hints that he has a future as a chorus boy in Cats. Also, Drillbit's down-and-out cohorts loot the skinny kid's nice house, the bullies (Alex Frost from Elephant and Josh Peck from Mean Creek) attack their prey with weirdly excessive violence, and the other adults are clueless about what's up with the young people. There's no pleasure to be had in these vignettes. Come to think of it, the whole enterprise is depressing, not least because Wilson looks like he's working so unhappily. (Perhaps I'm reading in too much because this was the time of the actor's highly publicized emotional troubles.)
It is worth going on a bit, though, about the particular clash of sensibilities that, I think, doomed Drillbit Taylor to detention. ''Edmond Dantes'' came up with the original story idea a good 20 years ago; Dantes is the occasional screenwriting name used by '80s teen-comedy czar John Hughes for such lesser oeuvres as Beethoven and Maid in Manhattan. And there is, indeed, something out-of-date and almost 20th-century nostalgic in this conception of high school oppressors and the high school oppressed, all of them essentially home alone. (The fat kid's got a blowsy, divorced mother; the skinny kid endures a macabre family setup in which he's treated like a visiting freak; and the shrimpy kid appears to have been born in a trunk backstage at a dinner theater.)
The story was nurtured, though, by producer Judd Apatow. And through his screenwriters (and fellow Undeclared teammates) Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen, the 21st-century comedy czar has attempted to force-graft a new-Apatow-school cultural with-it-ness onto old-Hughes-school characters. When the fat kid and the skinny kid talk on the phone on the night before their first day at school, they do so with the hyperverbal cadences (and where-are-the-hot-chicks sexual insecurities) of the Superbad boys. Only these naïfs aren't even somewhatbads; they're old-fashioned boys who like magic tricks and Cap'n Crunch cereal, spouting references to 8 Mile and Blade Runner that belong to the writers' world, not the characters'.
And then there's the star, told to play a man with sadness in his life and no roof over his head. For laughs. In the division between actors who disappear into character and those who superimpose their persona on whatever character they're playing, Wilson is surely in the latter category, loved for the slightly renegade, slightly beach-bunny lightness with which he drawls his way out of any screwups. There's little use for those assets in a comedy about being picked on by bullies a kid-size problem as identifiably real as the homeless guy's backstory is frankly fake. Overwritten and underbuilt by Hughes and Apatow, the character of Drillbit Taylor haunts the movie that carries his name like a bogeyman, not a bodyguard. D