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Not quite a wedgie

Although not tormenting, high school bully film is short on story and slightly sanitized

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For middle schoolers who love movies from the Judd Apatow funny factory, the best thing about Drillbit Taylor is that there’s finally a PG-13 edition they can see without bringing Mom, or convincing the ticket seller they’re really at the multiplex to catch Horton Hears a Who!

It aspires to the naughty sensibility of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and especially Superbad, but at a level toned down to pass the ratings board’s muster. And so you get outspoken adolescents sputtering at each other in language that’s off-color but never really foul, and nothing racier than long shots of Owen Wilson showering naked on the beach as passers-by gawk.

More to the point, you don’t get those movies’ moments of unabashed, earthy hilarity or the sense that those moments are there for the purpose of saying something. Producer Apatow and his director-for-hire, Steven Brill (Mr. Deeds), keep the smart-ass dialogue flowing, but it’s in the service of pretty mundane storytelling.

The most obvious parallels are to Superbad, famously concocted by writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were 13 and pretty much about their geeky but glib young selves. That one had Jonah Hill as Rogen’s junior surrogate, and in Drillbit (by Rogen and Beavis and Butt-Head alum Kristofor Brown) the role goes to Troy Gentile, another brash, bulky, curly-headed kid. Nate Hartley is the skinny, stammering sidekick, and there’s even a pipsqueak hanger-on (David Dorfman), whose pesky nature makes one yearn for some mellow McLovin.

Where Superbad was set at the pivotal time around graduation, Drillbit begins at the beginning, on the first day of high school. Right away the three freshmen nerds are targeted by psychotic senior Filkins (Alex Frost), who gets his jollies locking them in the trophy display case and grabbing them at the urinals at the least opportune moment.

Finding no sympathy from their parents or the doofus principal (Stephen Root), the trio takes to the Internet to find a bodyguard, which leads to a funny montage of applicants reminiscent of the 40-year-old Virgin’s night of speed dating. Among those clowning around as tough-guy wannabes: Chuck Liddell, the fighting champion, and Adam Baldwin, echoing his title role in My Bodyguard, the 1980 version of this movie.

Ultimately the job goes to smooth talker Drillbit Taylor (Wilson, who shot this movie before the attempt to take his own, um, career break). The trio falls for his patter about being an Army Ranger discharged for “unauthorized heroism,” but in reality Drillbit is a deserter and a two-bit thief living in the woods. He sets out to indulge these kids just until he can rob their parents’ houses and flee to Canada, but in the course of giving them bogus self-defense lessons, he starts to feel protective of them and goes to their school posing as a substitute teacher, falls for the pretty English teacher, blah blah blah. The big final confrontation unfolds as you expect it to, and the credits roll.

As is often the case, Wilson is slumming here, and he goes beyond the call of duty in getting across the pathetic nature of Drillbit, a guy who seldom acts on his convictions because he seldom has any. About his only skill is his gift of gab, which lets Wilson spew the self-assured, mesmerizing bull-pucky we know from The Wedding Crashers and elsewhere. Of the other adults, a standout is Ian Roberts (from the Chicago-made improv group Upright Citizens Brigade), funny as the skinny kid’s macho-man step dad. “How about some chicks on the wall here?” he bellows in the boy’s bedroom, decorated with magic memorabilia. “It’s like a nerd paradise!”

Denied the big, outrageous comedy set pieces that usually liven up Apatow movies, the teens in Drillbit do a lot of breaking stuff and hurting each other in pursuit of laughs that probably won’t come. There’s about 40 minutes of story in this 102-minute movie, and stretching it out means putting the nerds through an exasperating cycle: cowardice, then confidence, then cowardice, and on and on. It’s no wedgie, but after a while, Drillbit Taylor feels like its own form of torment.

Drillbit Taylor

Two Stars

Stars: Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann and Danny McBride

Director: Steven Brill

Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity

Theaters: AMC Narrows Plaza 8,

Century Olympia,

Galaxy Uptown Theatre,

Lakewood Cinema 15,

Lakewood Towne Center 12,

Longston Place 14, Regal Martin Village 16,

Yelm Cinemas @ Prairie Park

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