Many comedians and filmmakers got a boost during the Judd Apatow surge of the late 2000s. For example, David Wain, the subversive filmmaker known for the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, rode the wave to release his most conventional and popular comedy, the distinctly Apatovian but non-Apatow-produced picture Role Models.
Role Models is notable for giving platform to a whole bunch of talented comedians who would go on to be the comedy equivalent of character actors (I guess still just called “character actors”) — funny people who are liable to show up in any film or TV show in an unexpected role, almost always improving what they appear in. A few of the people here even got major roles at some point. So many of these faces became “where did I see them before?” actors for the next few years, and ultimately beloved presences: Jane Lynch, Ken Jeong, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Matt Walsh, Louis CK, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerri Kenney, etc. And that discounts the cast members I already knew and loved: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Seann William Scott, Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse.
Role Models follows Wheeler (Scott) and Danny (Rudd), energy drink salesmen who go from school to school hawking the product in the guise of an anti-drug PSA. One day, Danny faces an existential crisis and goes on a bender which results in his and Wheeler’s arrest. Their penalty: they must volunteer in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters type mentorship program as community service. They must become… role models.
The problem with the story is that both Wheeler and Danny are colossal assholes at the start of the film. I did not care if bad things happened to them. This is in contrast with most of the man-child comedies of the era that went out of their way to make their flawed protagonists endearing. Wheeler and Danny’s shittiness was a big turn-off for me when the movie first debuted; I like laughing at AND rooting for my heroes. These days, I’m here a little bit less for the storytelling, and frankly don’t mind that it has a bit of nastiness to it. But be warned that these are not especially likable heroes.
Wheeler and Danny get assigned polar opposite kids to mentor: Wheeler, a party bro, is paired with with profane tween Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson). Meanwhile, the neurotic Danny is paired with Augie (Mintz-Plasse), a dorky LARPer whose parents hate him. It creates a fun web of odd couple dynamic between the various leads, with solid cast chemistry all around. (One hiccup: It is odd and slightly problematic that the main black character is a crude, gangsta-rap inspired wild-child, but I’m inclined to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.)
The movie really picks up in the third act when the leads enter a large-scale LARP’ing battle, which pulls all of the film’s ensemble into one big set piece. It also pays off on the movie’s best emotional thread: Danny teaching Augie to stand up for what makes him happy rather than what his parents want.
Of the many supporting turns, Lynch is terrific, but Lo Truglio is the real scene stealer, leaning into dramatic Tolkien-esque diction and enunciation for some hilarious delivery. It honestly might be the best he’s ever been used in a movie I’ve watched.
Role Models is a funny movie, funnier than I remembered to be honest, and holds together just well enough from a story perspective by the end, but doesn’t have quite enough show-stoppers or lines you’ll be quoting for years like the best of its kin. (E.g, there’s a running joke about Starbucks’ weird names for things that’s low-hanging fruit. Yeah, “venti” is kind of dumb, but literally every person who’s bought a coffee has made these jokes.) Nonetheless, I’m glad I caught up with Role Models. I laughed a lot and was reminded how much I enjoy spending time with this cast.