When it was announced that Edgar Wright, the beloved cult auteur behind Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and previous Sub-Cult entry Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, would be directing Paul Rudd in a feature film adaptation of Marvel’s cult comic book character Ant-Man, it created a whirlwind of excitement among comic book fans. At the very least, this particular team promised a low-level cult classic.
But the pairing of Wright and Rudd in a mega-budgeted blockbuster about one of Marvel’s quirkiest do-gooders delighted non-comic book fans just as much, if not more, than it did superhero geeks. With a bona fide auteur like Wright in the director’s chair and a brilliant comic actor like Rudd in the lead, Ant-Man promised to be something much more than a typical superhero movie. It promised to break the mold the way Deadpool, Logan, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther later would.
Unfortunately, Wright and Marvel parted ways over the proverbial “creative differences.” Wright rebounded niftily with his first flat-out box office smash, the groovy sleeper hit Baby Driver, and after replacing Wright with the dependable Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down With Love), Ant-Man went on to become a critical and commercial success, even if it didn’t quite shatter the mold as expected. Reed’s Ant-Man wasn’t bad by any means, but there was no way it could possibly have compared to the Edgar Wright-directed potential masterpiece that, alas, exists only in the minds and fevered imaginations of the writer-director’s fans.
For his part, Rudd was an inspired, if unexpected, choice to play Ant-Man. He’d appeared in a number of box-office hits like Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, but as an invaluable member of the repertory companies of Judd Apatow and David Wain, he was generally best utilized as a supporting character, rather than a conventional leading man, much less an action hero. Rudd is, after all, legendary for showing a de-contextualized clip of the hilariously terrible E.T. knock-off Mac & Me every time he appears on Conan, rather than a clip from whatever movie he’s supposed to be promoting. He’s obviously more interested in amusing himself and satisfying his wandering id than in pursuing conventional movie stardom.
Yet Rudd has emerged as a star almost in spite of himself, thanks to movies like 2008’s Role Models, which he co-wrote and in which he starred, just as he co-wrote Ant-Man and its sequel and co-created the beloved cult TV comedy Party Down. Role Models began life as a directorial vehicle for The Animal helmer Luke Greenfield before Wain, who directed Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten, and would go on to direct him in They Came Together, Wanderlust, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture, came onboard as director, co-screenwriter, and supporting player.
The family-unfriendly comedy feels like a latter-day descendant of Bad News Bears, another wonderfully profane, irreverent, hard-R comedy about brash, irresponsible, foul-mouthed kids and the even more brash, even more irresponsible, and even more foul-mouthed adults mentoring them.
Rudd stars as Danny, a 35-year-old curmudgeon eking out a silly, embarrassing living traveling from school to school in a truck designed to look like a minotaur and encouraging children to stay off drugs by substituting the toxic, caffeine-plagued energy drink poison he and his sidekick are cynically peddling. American Pie’s Seann William Scott plays said sidekick, Wheeler, as a gleeful doofus, a sex-crazed man-child so ferociously unambitious that, by his own admission, he’d be content to wear a minotaur costume and quasi-entertain children “forever.”
Danny’s already crappy life as an underemployed depressive takes a turn for the worse when his ambitious live-in girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, one of many Apatow and Wain fixtures in the cast) tires of his stormy moods and persistent negativity and breaks up with him. A despondent Danny enters a state of freefall and, in despair, nearly kills a security guard when he drives the promotional minotaur truck into a statue.
Role Models’ central conceit demands suspension of disbelief, so instead of doing hard time for a pretty serious crime, these world-class screw-ups are instead sentenced to 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, a Big Brothers/Big Sisters-like organization that pairs kids in need with older mentors.
Superbad breakout star Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse proves he’s more than just a sentient meme here with a surprisingly textured performance as Danny’s charge, Augie, a gawky teen misfit who finds escape from the tyranny of everyday life by disappearing into a world of fantasy live-action role-playing (i.e. “larping”). Wheeler, meanwhile, whose life is a never-ending, frequently successful hunt for sexual conquests, is paired with the hilariously profane Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), who is every bit as obsessed with sex as his mentor but is somehow even cruder than Wheeler. Scott is a profoundly limited actor, but his role here plays to his strengths as a lovable slob, and Thompson is an impish, ribald delight, stealing scenes from a cast full of ringers and seasoned professionals.
Wain filled the rest of the film with fellow alumni from sketch-comedy show The State, including co-screenwriter Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney-Silver as Augie’s tacky parents and Joe Lo Truglio as a role-playing fanatic who has internalized the faux-medieval aesthetic of his pastime to a pathological degree. Bit parts are filled out by people like Louis C.K., The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, and Keegan-Michael Key, while Ken Jeong scored one of his juiciest roles as the king of the make-believe world Augie is obsessed with, a petty tyrant who hangs out at The Burger Hole with his royal sycophants and hangers-on, flagrantly abusing his imaginary power.
Rudd’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin co-star Jane Lynch steals the film as Gayle, the lunatic head of Sturdy Wings and an emotional exhibitionist who finds a way to shoehorn references to her former life as a drug-addicted prostitute into every conversation. Lynch infuses the character with her trademark weird intensity and loopy aggression; if Gayle goes easy on our ramshackle heroes, it might be because she’s even more glaringly inappropriate than they are.
Role Models depicts the rigidly hierarchical, rule- and protocol-obsessed realm of LARP as inherently ridiculous and laughable but also as a source of comfort, identity, and community for a lonely misfit in desperate need of all three. It laughs at its characters’ foibles and absurdity, but like its heroes, it moves from a place of glib mockery to empathy and understanding.
The film’s use of music and mythology is similarly nuanced and savvy. Wheeler’s obsession with KISS is a tribute to the crazy, theatrical world of make-believe and pretend — not terribly dissimilar, really, from the world of Dungeons & Dragons — created by Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, as well as a loving send-up. Role Models accomplishes the formidable feat of making the famously cynical and mercenary rock outfit seem incongruously lovable by association.
Danny may initially look askance at Augie and his dorky passions, but he’s ultimately saved by taking the big leap and embracing his inner geek, his inner freak, his inner Kiss Army rock-and-roll warrior. For a movie centered on a cynical, ornery bastard, Role Models is ultimately very inclusive and welcoming in its warm depiction of underdogs triumphing through cooperation and acceptance.
The wonderfully sardonic underachiever Rudd plays here feels like the sarcastic yet charming stepbrother/love interest he played in his star-making turn in Clueless — after fifteen years of failure, low-level depression, and resignation have all but extinguished his inner light and rendered him a joyless crank. For much of the film, he’s a sour misanthrope deeply unimpressed with everything life has to offer, but because he’s played by Rudd, we end up sympathizing with him and feeling his pain despite his prickliness and rough edges.
Role Models is a goofy, commercial, feel-good comedy, but its portrayal of depression — as represented both by Danny’s never-ending mid-life crisis and personal/professional funk — and Augie’s clammy discomfort in his own skin, that palpable anxiety when he’s around his parents and bullies, rings surprisingly and refreshingly true.
Rudd can currently be seen playing a tiny hero in a giant movie, but Role Models’ enduring appeal and growing cult is inextricably linked to its modest scope and ambition. Role Models is not too big or too small. It’s the perfect size, an eminently rewatchable sleeper destined for a long, happy life as the kind of casually irresistible charmer you can’t help but finish watching every time you come across it on basic cable.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin