- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Take three high school rejects — one heavyset, one beanpole thin and one uber-nerdish — and let them stumble their way toward teen acceptance.

Sound like “Superbad,” last year’s R-rated smash? Well, “Drillbit Taylor” isn’t one-tenth as coarse, but the comic beats aren’t far off.

They share the same co-writer (Seth Rogen) and producer (Judd Apatow).

Yes, Mr. Apatow’s comedy formula is starting to wear thin, but it still makes for better teen comedies than those routinely foisted upon us.

“Taylor” follows Wade (Nate Hartley), Ryan (Troy Gentile) and Emmit (David Dorfman) on their first day of high school. The trio are immediately humiliated by a bully named Filkins (Alex Frost, a John Cusack look-alike) who’s so cruel he would make Mike Tyson think twice about crossing him.

The boys hit the Internet to find a bodyguard service that could save their young lives. Too bad they can’t afford to pony up for top-flight protection.

They end up hiring Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a drifter posing as an expert in the defensive arts.

Drillbit wants to pilfer enough money from boys to pay his way to Canada, which the film glibly describes as a utopia compared to the United States.

Taylor is a fraud, but he convinces the boys he’s tough enough to extinguish Filkins’ threat.

“You know what this is? A wing,” Drillbit says, lifting up his arm. “And you’re under it.” Only Mr. Wilson and his cracked voice could sell a line like that.

Naturally, Drillbit starts to sympathize with the boys’ plight, and the teens, in turn, take control of their lives thanks to Drillbit’s morale-boosting presence.

“Drillbit Taylor” is two or three drafts away from joining “Superbad” as an elite comic feature. Supporting players come and go with little sense of purpose. A key subplot — Drillbit poses as a substitute teacher — isn’t explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Also, Leslie Mann’s work as a teacher who falls, hard, for Drillbit isn’t fleshed out to its rich comic potential.

Then there’s Mr. Wilson, who isn’t very convincing as a duplicitous cad but is as slick as ever putting over the better comic bits. It’s a repeat performance from 2006’s “You, Me and Dupree.” No one can out-slack Mr. Wilson.

As for Mr. Frost, suffice to say a star may be born. He’s terrifying as Filkins but equally magnetic when posing as a misunderstood choirboy.

Mr. Rogen’s script offers some of the same kind of witty repartee between the leads that he mustered up for “Superbad.” Watching Wade check for nascent armpit hair in the shower is one of many signs the film understands adolescent angst.

Any movie sly enough to slip in a surprise cameo referencing the 1980 sleeper “My Bodyguard” deserves some praise.

“Drillbit Taylor” shows that Mr. Apatow’s Midas touch may be ebbing but it’s still golden enough to give his latest film a goose.

**1/2

TITLE: “Drillbit Taylor” RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, sexual references and comic violence) CREDITS: Directed by Steven Brill. Written by Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes WEB SITE: www.drillbittaylor.comMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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