It’s never a good sign when a movie improves the second its top-billed actor, and namesake, leaves the screen, but such is the case with “Drillbit Taylor,” the latest Judd Apatow-shepherded laughfest. Owen Wilson may be the movie’s box office draw, but he proves to be more of a distraction than anything. Indeed, the whole affair reeks of last-minute tampering, something Hollywood continues to do despite the fact that it almost never works.
The story begins with awkward teens Wade (Nate Hartley) and Ryan (Troy Gentile) preparing for their freshman year of high school. They’re convinced that they will be singled out by some upperclassmen as targets for bullying, and are both relieved and appalled to discover that Filkins (Alex Frost, who looks like John Cusack’s deranged little brother), the Grand Pooh Bah of bullies, has singled out diminutive freshman Emmit (David Dorfman) instead. Wade sticks up for Emmit, and in the process wins a grateful new friend and a terrifying new enemy. Filkins and his buddy Ronny (Josh Peck) terrorize Wade, Ryan and Emmit nonstop, so the three place an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine for a bodyguard. The only one they can afford is Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a former Army Ranger and current homeless beggar. At first, Drillbit views the kids as an easy mark to score some quick cash – the boys are unaware of Drillbit’s “home-free” living arrangements – but before long Drillbit begins to genuinely care for the well being of his charges. The catch is that Drillbit’s fellow beggars want him to milk these kids for all they’re worth, and Drillbit’s budding love affair with an English teacher (Leslie Mann) forces him to continue with the ruse against his better judgment.
Ten bucks says the original script for “Drillbit Taylor” was drastically retro-fitted once Owen Wilson signed on. It appears that the movie is going for an update on the 1980 teen drama “My Bodyguard” – they even include a sweet cameo to underscore that point – and when the movie focuses on the horrors the boys face from all angles (Wade’s parents think he’s spending his money on drugs), it works surprisingly well. Then Wilson appears, and everything falls apart. He may be the movie’s lead, but he’s not the star; the boys are the stars, while Drillbit is a pathological liar and hustler. Not a very sympathetic character, though that doesn’t stop the movie from trying to make him the most charming, kind-hearted pathological liar and hustler you’ll ever meet. It’s pointless, really; more often than not, he’s getting in the way of the real story.
Wilson has to know that the kids in this movie took him to school in the acting department. Gentile, who has made a career out of playing Jack Black’s younger self, really shines as the cocky but scared Ryan, and Hartley is the textbook definition of gangly teen. Even better, neither character is played as a D&D-obsessed nerd; they’re lacking confidence, not social skills, and it’s nice to see a movie where the oddballs are normal kids who haven’t blossomed yet. Leslie Mann’s immense talents, meanwhile, are wasted as the bum magnet Lisa. The love affair between her and Drillbit has the depth of a bowl of soup.
One quick look at the writing credits tells you everything you need to know about “Drillbit Taylor.” Apatow regulars Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown wrote the script, but they share the story credit with Edmond Dantes, which is the pseudonym of one John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes). Suddenly, it makes perfect sense why some parts of the movie are so effortless while others are ridiculously contrived. Pity Mr. Dantes didn’t stick around to handle the screenplay, and work his magic on the Owen Wilson portion of the program(2.5 / 5)