A+ Sound A Extras B
starring Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, Danny McBride, Josh Peck
screenplay by Kristofor Brown & Seth Rogen
directed by Steven Brill
by Bill Chambers For good and for ill, John Hughes's sticky fingerprints are all over Drillbit Taylor, his first screen credit (under his nom-de-plume "Edmond Dantès") in six years. The film has signs of something written post-Curly Sue, given its glib fascination with the homeless, penchant for quasi-Dickensian names (Drillbit, Filkins, Doppler, Fence), and reams of sadistic slapstick. Yet it also echoes an earlier period in which Hughes treated high-schoolers with sensitivity, confronted the sometimes-toxic influence of their parents (particularly the patriarch), and understood pop-culture as teenage shorthand. (If the score's pomo quotation of the Cape Fear theme wasn't indicated in Hughes's 70-page "scriptment," it's an uncanny homage. Ditto a non-sequitur of the nurse's office pulling down a "Closed" sign like a nervous bank teller in the Wild West during an altercation in the hall outside.) Too, Drillbit Taylor betrays Hughes's influence in scenes of class warfare, though a moment when the protagonists, running for their lives, stop to ogle a couple of sunbathers is so derivative of his Ferris Bueller's Day Off that only the rabid fandom of script doctors Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen could account for it.
So it's got potential, and though you'd think having Hughes's heir apparent Judd Apatow on board as the producer would result in something substantially better than other surrogate Hughes films like Career Opportunities and Dutch, true to form the directorial buck was passed to a journeyman, Steven Brill, who like any ventriloquist-dummy debauches the voice(s) he's parroting. Moreover, although the premise has been retrofitted with Apatowian archetypes (a cookie-cutter version of Rogen, a role for Leslie Mann), in a strange way Apatow and Hughes only cancel each other out: the two men share the same ossified vision of high school, Hughes by virtue of his idleness, Apatow by virtue of nostalgia. Ironically, despite Apatow's ostensibly hip brand of humour, Drillbit Taylor is as much an anachronism as Mike Myers's recent The Love Guru, the product of someone who seems stubbornly out of touch with changing trends.1 I mean, I appreciated the Cape Fear joke--on the other hand, a Cape Fear joke? In 2008? Nobody attending the film's McKinley High2 ever texts each other or boasts of how many MySpace friends they have or goes to a class with computers on the desks, and the cheeky casting of Elephant's Alex Frost notwithstanding, this is a movie about bullying that evidently takes place in some alternate universe where Columbine didn't happen, since none of the adult characters treat the threat of school violence seriously. Unlike Apatow's magnum opus "Freaks and Geeks" (which is set in 1980) or his epochal Superbad (which couched its Luddite spirit in an opening homage to '70s blaxploitation), the picture never finds a way to sanction its retro orientation, either.
The quaintest aspect of Drillbit Taylor is arguably Drillbit himself, whose first line is appropriately an '80s catchphrase ("Time to make the donuts"): the genre long ago outgrew this convention of the comic-slob chaperone to an adolescent ensemble. (Witness the quick death of Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears remake.) What we have here is a Bushwhacked-style relic in which the weakling troika of Wade (Nate Hartley), "T-Dog" (Bad News Bears vet Troy Gentile), and Emmit (suddenly Screech-y David Dorfman, who's really been three different actors over the course of his young life) hire Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a vagrant army deserter masquerading as an ex-Marine, to protect them against vicious neo-Scut Farkus Filkins (a scarily intense Frost). Egged on by fellow bum Don (the sorta-repulsive Danny McBride), Drillbit plots to keep the ruse up until the runts' meagre reserve dries up, and there's a hilarious scene where he walks around Wade's home stealing shit ostensibly for its usefulness in tactical manoeuvres. ("Observe its momentary reflective blinding capabilities...Probably stop an armour-piercing bullet at point-blank range," he notes of a silver serving tray--only to reject an aluminium baseball bat as "too obvious.") Once Wade is rewarded with a shiner for trying out one of Drillbit's bogus defense techniques, Drillbit recognizes the gravity of the situation and insinuates himself as a buffer between the hapless trio and their tormentor by adopting a third persona, that of substitute teacher "Dr. Illbit."
Thus the film essentially becomes a rethink of Hughes's Weird Science with a similar metaphysical disregard for logic. (I can't recall another plot development in recent cinema that invites as many unanswered questions as Drillbit's foray into teaching.) There's a reason Weird Science is the least popular of Hughes's golden-age teenpix, and I suspect it's because audiences take exception to someone else doing their avatars' dirty work for them, regardless of whether that someone else is a monster from the Id. Although reviews of Drillbit Taylor keep name-checking 1980's My Bodyguard (indeed, a tongue-in-cheek cameo from that film's Adam Baldwin solicits the comparison), this is more like that episode of "Silver Spoons" where Ricky hires Mr. T for protection against the dreaded Ox. On the surface, Hughes likes to celebrate the resourcefulness of his young heroes (Home Alone is on one level about a budding engineer), but there's a motif running through his oeuvre--informed, one assumes, by the same cathartic need that drives Sean Penn to avenge any and all theoretical harm done to his offspring through his work--of the grown-up coming to the rescue that short-circuits said heroes' coming-of-age. I found the only way I could watch the film without resenting Drillbit's interloping was to imagine it as a sequel to The Minus Man wherein the enigmatic Vann Siegert has moved on to a younger batch of victims. Maybe it's just misplaced contempt for the deus-ex-machina solution, yet it feels like an extension of the gratuitous emasculations visited upon these kids to have the cavalry show up whenever their situation looks hopeless.
I guess if you're over a certain age, you're supposed to see Drillbit Taylor as the story of a brokedown Batman and perhaps even enjoy a touch of schadenfreude at the expense of his clientele. Trouble is, the bullying sequences are so visceral, and Hartley, Gentile, and Dorfman--who in a nice bit of characterization wears a succession of uncommented-upon souvenir T-shirts from Broadway musicals--are so well-cast (not only do they fit the bill physically, but they're also innately lovable), that nothing can compel you to take this superior position. For raw identification, no redemption trope is capable of competing with the sight of vulnerable Dorfman shrieking, "Please stop! Please stop!" while receiving an "earthquake," i.e., being shaken violently at a urinal. Of course, it doesn't help that Wilson suggests a last-minute replacement for a star with a more contrasted iconography: Though Wilson's established screen persona provides a solid framework for a rather sketchily-conceived character, it doesn't make for an especially striking juxtaposition against the teenagers.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Drillbit Taylor arrives on Blu-ray in an "Extended Survival Edition." As this was my introduction to the film and the additional footage has not been annotated, I have no idea how this unrated version differs from the PG-13 theatrical cut. (For what it's worth, it sports an identical running time of 109 minutes.) Shot in Super35, the movie looks impeccable in its 2.35:1, 1080p transfer, with each colour in DP Fred Murphy's rainbow palette crisply delineated in a way that DVD couldn't begin to approximate. The image retains a light wash of grain and with it an organic beauty and clarity, and blacks are rich without crushing detail. As for the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio: I listened to it downconverted to standard DD 5.1, but I don't think that matters much in this case--this is your standard comedy mix through and through, albeit robustly rendered. On another track, director Brill and co-screenwriter Brown record a feature-length commentary in which they're joined, at separate intervals, by actors Dorfman, Gentile, and Hartley, the latter of whom rattles off a Woody Allen routine with Rain Man-like precision. There's a lot of dead air before the first kid shows up, though, and if you learn anything from this yakker it will be mostly by accident.
The disembodied voice of Brown returns and is joined by Rogen (via telephone) in "The Writers Get a Chance to Talk" (13 mins.), a vastly more informative discussion of abandoned concepts (including an Iraq-set prologue), battles with the studio, and a brainstorming session from Hell with an unnamed, insufferably pedantic aging female screenwriter of teen comedies (Gail Parent? Jessica Bendinger?). For what it's worth, it sounds like fellow "Undeclared" alumnus Brown stepped in for Rogen's regular writing partner Evan Goldberg after Goldberg opted to finish grad school instead.
A whopping nineteen deleted/extended scenes totalling 23 minutes mainly highlight the slack that was pruned from the heads and/or tails of master shots. If the encounters with Filkins are barely palatable in montage form, they're absolutely unbearable unexpurgated--but that said, I wish they'd left in the painful moment where Wade is freed from a trophy case by his dreamgirl (adorable Valerie Tian) and can't bear to express his gratitude, leaving her to mutter a sad "thank you" to the janitor who assisted. A thousand teenage anxieties are distilled, beautifully, into this single 30-second clip, and it would've counted itself among the rare passages to linger on the immediate consequences of Filkins's actions. Three more outtakes reels--the 4-minute "Line-o-Rama" (an Apatow DVD staple collecting improv scraps), "Gag Reel" (4 mins.), and "Panhandle" (3 mins.)--prove mainly that Billy O'Neill is funny as fuck--and that all his best lines ("Conjoined queers," he says, politically-correcting the insult "Siamese queers") were inexplicably cut.
The remaining "production featurettes" are uniformly brief and, frankly, worth a cursory glance at best. "Kids on the Loose" (3 mins.) is a viral sugar rush caught on tape, while "Directing Kids" (3 mins.) features lots of Brill faux-disciplining the young cast with stage slaps. In "Super Billy" (3 mins.), the aforementioned O'Neill gets his due; "Bully" (3 mins.), meanwhile, demonstrates that Frost is equally intimidating off camera. The rest: "Bodyguard" (3 mins.) reveals that Baldwin is wearing his actual jacket from My Bodyguard; "Trading Punches" (2 mins.) checks out the choreography of Wade's practice punching-match with T-Dog; "Rap Off" (4 mins.) shows behind-the-scenes footage of rap instructor Jacques "Ku" Slade half-supportively coaching Gentile through his 8 Mile number; "Sprinkler Day" (3 mins.) sees Josh Peck doing what he does best/worst--mugging--and possibly referencing his role in Mean Creek ("I don't do well in water"); "Filkins Fight" (7 mins.) is basically B-roll of the entire climax with intermittent remarks from stunt coordinator Jack Gill; "The Life of Don" (2 mins.) is a predictably irritating in-character interview with McBride's Don the Panhandler; and "The Real Don: Danny McBride" (6 mins.) is virtually indistinguishable from the previous piece, or at least as desperately unfunny. International and "bodyguard" trailers for Drillbit Taylor round out the platter--and like the remainder of this disc's supplementary material, they're presented in HD and DD 5.1. Originally published: July 15, 2008.
1. Myers has effectively become his alter ego Austin Powers, thawed out every few years and expecting the times to adapt to him. return
2. Not coincidentally, the alma mater of "Freaks and Geeks"' freaks and geeks. return