Drillbit Taylor seems like one of those movies that is destined for regular rotation on Comedy Central. Inoffensive, vaguely funny, and not terribly original, it can join other such movies on the basic cable channel in the perpetual loop of lower-tier chucklers to keep viewers placated while waiting for the network's better programming to come on. While Drillbit Taylor doesn't necessarily deserve to be in such company as PCU or Stuck on You, its undeniable lack of originality forces the hand of basic cable prosecution.
The latest from the Judd Apatow comedy factory to hit DVD, Drillbit Taylor stars Owen Wilson as the title character, a homeless army vet who ends up working for three nerdy high-school freshmen as their body guard. After several failed training sessions where the skills he imparts get the boys their butts handed to them, Drillbit decides to infiltrate their campus and pass himself off as a substitute teacher so that he can be there to stop the bullying personally. This is also where his scheme shifts from using the impressionable youngsters as a gravy train to Drillbit actually caring about them. His guiding hand helps them gain confidence, and he starts dating one of the school's English teachers (Leslie Mann, adorable as always). That is, until the inevitable revelation of his true origins occurs, and he must earn real redemption.
Drillbit Taylor is co-written by Seth Rogen, which likely explains why it feels like its alternate title could be Superbad: Freshman Year. The trio of geeks that Drillbit ends up scamming include a fat one with curly hair (Troy Gentile), a skinny nice guy (Nate Hartley), and the uber-geek who doesn't ever get how geeky he is (David Dorfman). Sound familiar? I guess there is something to be said for a proven formula, however, because the teen actors are some of the best things in the movie. It adds to the humor that they really appear to be fourteen years old, with squeaky puberty voices and all. They don't have to fake the awkward, they are awkward.
The rapport between Wilson and the three young stars is actually quite charming, and director Steven Brill (Little Nicky) does manage to create a semblance of heartwarming '80s comedies where goofy teens get back at the bullies and become the most popular kids at school. On the opposite end, Drillbit Taylor also manages to get the most laughs the more mean-spirited it is. The truly funny schoolyard insults smack of Rogen's wicked tongue, and both the montages of early bullying and of the vengeance Drillbit doles out upon first entering the school have some pretty hysterical moments. Owen Wilson and the role of the lying loser are a natural fit, and while you do get the sense that he had to do little more than show up in order to pull it off, the producers do get their money's worth out of him.
It's just too bad that the movie doesn't have the legs to sustain itself all the way to the end. Drillbit's homeless friends are rather poorly drawn and end up being little more than plot devices to expose the character's ruse. Also, once the truth about Drillbit is uncovered, the already predictable film gets even more predictable, and unlike most of the Apatow movies, this one doesn't manage to figure out how to transition from the mean-spirited material into the weightier emotions. Brill's direction is mawkish and uninspired.
As a side note, Leslie Mann has often praised Apatow, her husband, for not being afraid to create strong roles for women, but he definitely has earned himself a couple of nights on the couch for this one. Her part goes nowhere, and she has very little to do, relegated to the obligatory "love interest." The script seems to set her up as part of Drillbit's redemption, but then all but drops her in the final act. It's such a waste, because she's always so good. When is someone going to write a film with Leslie Mann in the starring role, I ask you?
Since this is the Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition, the question of what is extra in the movie is about as inevitable as the film's sappy ending. The answer, however, can come off as a bit of a mystery. The DVD's running time is 109 minutes, which is also the theatrical running time (according to IMDB). I did not see this movie when it was originally out, so I have nothing to compare it to. There are some special features that are exclusive to this edition and not on the PG-13 release; the commentary would seemingly be the same on both discs, too--except there is at least one point in the movie, a sliver of a scene where Drillbit approaches the bullies for the first time and pretends to talk to them, that writer Kristofor Brown indicates as being added back in. Shortly after that, though, Troy Gentile asks if there will be an extended cut of the movie in reference to a missing line, and Steven Brill says that yes, there is an extended cut--so which one are they watching? It's kind of confusing. At times, it sounds like they might have stopped the recording session, rearranged the participants, restarted, and spliced it all together after, which would explain some of that inconsistency.
In addition to the added bully scene, according to the commentary, there is a little more added in with the date between Leslie Mann and Owen Wilson, more in the parents' meeting with the school principal (played with usual panache by Stephen Root), and a little bit in the big fight scene at the end.
The image quality of the Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition DVD is as strong as one would expect from a recent studio release. The 16:9 transfer looks pretty good, with nice colors and crisp resolution.
The 5.1 English soundtrack also sounds quite good. I didn't notice any flashy audio effects, but the overall atmosphere of the soundscape is good. The Spanish and French dubs are also mixed in 5.1, and there are subtitles for all three languages, as well.
As noted above, an audio commentary features director Steven Brill and co-writer/producer Kristofor Brown talking together, and from time to time they also bring in the three teen actors, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, and David Dorfman (none of whom have seen the movie, since this was recorded before it was released). It's a bit of a rambling commentary, as the participants are all friendly with one another, and there are occasional pauses, but it's decent enough. It won't win any awards for commentaries, but then the film won't win any awards either, so I am not sure it requires a more detailed study. The track does noticeably improve when Hartley jumps in, Woody Allen impression and all.
There are about an hour of features on the disc, half of which are on both versions of the DVD and half of which are just on this Extended Survival Edition.
The featurettes on the rated and the unrated editions are as follows:
* "The Writers Get a Chance to Talk" (14 minutes): Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown speak on the phone about writing the script together, with stills from the movie and behind-the-scenes photos playing underneath the conversation. They talk about some of the development of the script, and though they only kind of hint at the possibility, some of what they say suggests what might have gone wrong with the movie as far as the story is concerned.
* 13 Deleted and Extended Scenes (17 minutes): A variety of different moments, including some longer interviews with the prospective bodyguards, Drillbit doling out more punishment to the bullies as a teacher, and a great hazing scene with Dorfman getting accosted while urinating.
* Line-O-Rama (4:25): A regular feature of Apatow-produced DVDs, a rapid-fire montage of alternate line readings and improvs.
* Gag Reel (4:10): Bloopers, pratfalls, etc.
The extended version DVD has five more featurettes not available on the regular edition, and they all run around 3 minutes, except the last one. They are:
* "Rap Off": Filming the rap battle, including seeing the actors working with a rap coach.
* "Sprinkler Day": Setting up for the scene where Drillbit sets off a fire alarm.
* "Bully": Messing around on set with the two actors playing the bullies, as well as raw footage and outtakes from some of their scenes. These actors are Alex Frost and Josh Peck, and as revealed in the commentary, they are making a career of playing these kinds of characters, one being the shooter in Elephant and the other the bad guy in Mean Creek.
* "Directing Kids": A jokey feature with bloopers and Steven Brill talking about the child actors and horsing around with them.
* "The Real Don: Danny McBride" (5:45): On set with the actor who plays Drillbit's friend, who is also the star of the current release Foot Fist Way.
The teaser trailer for the upcoming Star Trek prequel and the full trailer for Iron Man play as the disc loads. Both are also available in the extras section, along with The Spiderwick Chronicles. They play as a continuous program when you select them from the menu, they can't be chosen individually.
Though Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition has a decent concept and some good actors in it, there is very little in this comedy that we haven't seen before. At times, it feels like it's composed of redos of better scenes from better movies, which is also why the story feels disjointed and muddled. The meaner the humor in the movie, the funnier it can be, and there are several enjoyable performances, but things particularly drag in the back half of the picture and the sentimentality is overwrought. The extended edition appears to be barely extended, though the special features are actually pretty good. Even so, Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.