A junior-league “Superbad” with an aftertaste of “The Pacifier,” “Drillbit Taylor” is a just passable pubescent comedy with a modest laugh count by Apatow factory standards. Tale of three dorky high school freshmen who hire a would-be pro bodyguard to protect them from campus bullies brandishes enough rude and pranky adolescent humor to connect with the target audience, indicating good if not stellar spring-break B.O. in relatively quick playoff.
Setup promises a sort of modern Three Stooges takeoff that, unfortunately, is only haphazardly delivered. Beleaguered trio of hopeless physical specimens consists of tubby Ryan (Troy Gentile, Jack Black’s younger self in both “Nacho Libre” and “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny”), who fancies himself the world’s greatest white rapper; brainy string bean Wade (Nate Hartley); and shrimpy Emmit (David Dorfman, “The Ring”), who gloms onto the two buddies when Wade misguidedly intervenes with the thug who stuffs Emmit into a locker on the first day of school.
The ringleader of torment is Filkins (Alex Frost, “Elephant”), a boy with a mean glint in his eye and evident free rein to wreak havoc at the West Los Angeles school, where the principal is in Filkins’ pocket and hall monitors must be a thing of the past.
This not being a superhero movie in which the beset weaklings suddenly acquire extraordinary powers, the threesome conducts bodyguard interviews at the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. As the boys quickly learn, in L.A., security personnel are accustomed to deep-pocket employers, so the only guy they can afford is the oddly monikered Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless Army discharge (for purported “unauthorized heroism”) who sees these rich kids as his passport to quick coin and a desired move to Canada.
Drillbit lives on the bluff above Pacific Coast Highway and showers nude on the beach each morning for the delectation of passing motorists (the PG-13 rating precludes the male full frontals that have quickly become an Apatow signature). He’s glib enough to impress the boys with his self-defense stratagems for a while, even if he doesn’t really solve their problems.
As it unfolds, the script by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen (both writers on Apatow’s short-lived comedy series “Undeclared”) becomes increasingly conventional. Since formula dictates that the adult should end up learning more from the kids than vice versa, Drillbit is forced to reveal the pitiful truth about his life to the boys, as well as to the pert blonde teacher (Leslie Mann) who’s taken a major shine to him.
School and adolescent sexuality provide inexhaustible sources of comic situations, but the scenarists remain content to take mostly easy shots. Comparison with “Superbad” stems from how the boys seem to get in well over their heads with older, unsavory characters. Perhaps because the kids are younger here, however, director Steven Brill (whose directorial debut, “Heavyweights,” was co-written by Apatow) cannot push the premise to the same extremes, and initial concentration on them is eventually exchanged for more screen time with the title character, enacted by Wilson with his standard brand of off-center affability.
As a result, characterizations of the weesome threesome never goes beyond the one-dimensionally obvious; from the outset, the assertive Ryan is clearly destined to become Jonah Hill, Wade has a character arc that consists of working up the nerve to ask out a smart Asian girl (Valerie Tian), and Emmit remains merely annoying.
As is the norm for Apatow product, pic is conspicuously devoid of directorial flair and visual niceties, qualities clearly not required of hit comedies but perhaps neither to be so assiduously avoided.