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Drillbit Taylor (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Dashiell Hammett, in reviewing the book, “Murder Mansion,” observed, “If it is unreasonable for a character to have said this, done that, or suppressed the other, and if such unreasonableness will hatch out the desired chapteral surprise, then overboard with the character’s sanity.” Well, maybe that’s a little obtuse. What he’s saying is that even if something is impossible, some creators of entertainment will disdain what’s reasonable and put down what works with his story, no matter how unrealistic in real life.

That’s what writers Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen and director Steven Brill have done in this film that contains lots of good performances. Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) is a homeless bum who hangs out in Santa Monica. He sleeps on the Palisades overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and passes the day in a restaurant in the Third Street Mall, actually sitting at a table with his other bum friends. It’s true that there are a lot of homeless people hanging around the Third Street Mall. I used to meet one of my friends, the late Dr. Earl Cohen, at the Starbucks on the Mall and we’d drink coffee as the bums hung out around a huge plant that was shaped like a dinosaur just outside Starbucks (Starbucks moved its location to get away from the environment created by these people). But there was nothing charming about these people, who were much younger than Taylor and his friends and had tattoos and piercings all over their bodies. My impression, confirmed by Earl, who was a psychiatrist, was that they were, mostly, schizophrenic. They certainly didn’t hang out inside the restaurants around there, like Taylor and his friends do in this film. Taylor’s gang are not mentally ill. Rather, it is composed of just a bunch of thieving bums.

This film is yet another take on high-schoolers being victimized by bullies and how they react. Obese Ryan (Troy Gentile, who gives probably the best performance in the film) and his buddy, Wade (Nate Hartley), who is almost criminally skinny, attend their first day of high school. In the process they become victims of the school’s bully, Filkins (Alex Frost), and his sidekick, Ronnie (Josh Peck), and pick up a new friend, a tag-along Emmit (David Dorfman). Also, on that first day, Wade falls for an Asian student, Brooke (Valerie Tian).

The truly silly premise (and it’s only one of many silly things in this movie) is that the three go out to look for a bodyguard. They interview lots of people, which provides comedic moments, not to worry how ludicrous is would be for three high school freshmen to be interviewing hitmen in a coffee shop. They end up hiring Drillbit, who scams them. Drillbit masquerades as a substitute teacher and in the process falls for another teacher, Lisa (Leslie Mann, who is producer Judd Apatow’s wife in real life).

This has so many unrealistic setups that it is hard to sit back and enjoy Wilson’s talent and Gentile’s ability to deliver the laugh line (as well as Frost’s exceptional performance as the bully).

I like Wilson, but I’m beginning to understand why he might have tried to end it all. This is a guy with the talent and looks to be a superstar, but he continues to be betrayed by weak material like this.

There is a message in this film, and it is that all authority figures are clueless and impotent when it comes to handling teenagers and their problems. Everyone in the film, from parents to teachers to the principal of the school, outside of the three protagonists, is naïve and ineffective, no, let’s be frank, stupid, in dealing with an obvious problem of a brutal bully.

This is a movie that has flashes of brilliance. In the hands of someone like Mark Waters (2003’s “Freaky Friday,” 2004’s “Mean Girls”) who understands teenagers and what can be funny but still reasonable, or Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause,” 1955), who had the talent to portray teenagers vs. adults in a dramatic but rational manner, this could have been brilliant. What a pity.