A cleverly placed cameo early on in Drillbit Taylor reveals that the filmmakers are keenly aware of the territory in which they tread. It's a reference to the 1980 film My Bodyguard, in which a bullied teen hires a loner to get his back. But where that film went for the more poignant, coming of age vibe, this film is much more interested in making you laugh. More often than not, it succeeds.
Wade (Nate Hartley
) and Ryan (Troy Gentile
) are nervous about the first day of high school. They should be. No sooner do they arrive, inadvertently wearing the same shirt, than Wade's attempts to protect one diminutive student (David Dorfman, who's grown maybe two inches since playing Naomi Watts' son in The Ring) from the school bullies (Alex Frost
and Josh Peck) land them on said bullies' crap list. Article continues below
Desperate for protection from the thugs' merciless abuse, Wade posts an ad on the Internet for a bodyguard. After enduring a parade of whack jobs (which produces one of the film's funniest sequences) they cannot afford, homeless scam artist Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson
) steps in and agrees to solve their problem on the cheap. While his plan is to bleed them for every dime they and their rich parents have, he grows to love the kids, and one of their teachers (a somewhat wasted Leslie Mann
Fortunately, it's not nearly as schmaltzy as it sounds. Putting together a film like this is no easy task. The man-child suddenly loaded with mentoring duties setup is an easy road to Syruptown, but screenwriters Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen
(yes, that Seth Rogen) deliver a solid script that misses that exit completely, delivering a PG-13 version of the banter that made the latter's Superbad script so infectious.
Despite a less-than-favorable track record that includes Without a Paddle and Mr. Deeds, director Steven Brill
finds just the right balance of sweet, absurd, and outrageous to keep us charmed. Even a montage of abuses heaped upon our heroes is hilarious without making us lose sympathy for them. The influence of producer Judd Apatow seems apparent here, since that mix seems to be his specialty.
The comic chemistry of the three pint-sized leads is considerable. While Gentile often comes off as a mini-Jonah Hill
, that's not exactly a bad thing. Hartley gives the film's strongest performance, finding a range within his character that's probably not even necessary for the film he's in. And Dorfman plays off the other two with a feverish intensity that never plays too broad.
Wilson is basically on autopilot here, but for the purposes of this film, that's exactly what you want. He's ably backed by his homeless posse (with a particularly winning turn by Danny McBride) who, in a clever sequence, all pose as substitute teachers at Wade's school.
Drillbit Taylor doesn't have anything particularly new to say about bullies or using violence to stand up for yourself. And though it's all in good fun, it's still kind of difficult to work a My Bodyguard premise in a post-Columbine age. But the film never pretends to take on anything so daunting. What it sets out to do, and effectively so, is to wring some giggles out of the insecurities we all feel on that first day of school.