'Role Models" might just be this year's "Bad Santa." Not because it's foul-mouthed and foul-minded in ways calculated to appall all right-thinking moviegoers, although it's certainly that. Any movie that shows its heroes firing up a joint between stints as high-school anti-drug crusaders is true to its black little heart.
No, David Wain's scruffy, anti-everything comedy about two grown-up losers mentoring two young losers in a Big Brothers program is remarkable for the way it mines the comedy of defeated expectations. One of the leads, Paul Rudd's Danny Donahue, has been selling nuclear-colored caffeine beverages to school kids for a decade and has just about lost the will to live: His McJob has metastasized into a McLife. His partner, a grinning goofball named Wheeler (Seann William Scott), actually likes dressing up in a Minotaur costume and bellowing "Taste the Beast!" Together they're the Mutt and Jeff of recession America.
After Danny is dumped by his lawyer girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), he drives his Minotaur-mobile up a statue, which results in an arrest and court-mandated community service for himself and Wheeler. They're assigned to "Sturdy Wings," a mentoring program overseen by a grizzled yet impossibly peppy 12-step survivor named Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch from "Best in Show" and "Talladega Nights"). Describing herself in an introductory video, Gayle explains, "My father was a traveling salesman; my mother, out of necessity, was a whore."
Wheeler's mentee is Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), an 11-year-old with the vocabulary and hormones of a sailor looking forward to shore leave after two years at sea. Danny gets Augie Farks, a sullen nerd whose life revolves around LAIRE, a fantasy role-playing game whose members meet in the park and hit each other with Styrofoam swords while speaking in potted medievalese. Augie's played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse from "Superbad" - the character's basically that movie's McLovin with fewer social graces.
The film lets these four shambolically collide with each other, learning twisted life lessons while the supporting characters avert their eyes in distress. It's not funny in a conventional punch line-and-response way, but you find yourself laughing anyway: The attitude of prostrate comic disgust is contagious.
"Role Models" works because Wain and Rudd (who collaborated on the script) have the same bed-head sense of humor. They don't work for a gag so much as sidle up to it, kick the tires, then snort in disbelief. (Scott is just along for the ride, grinning that Cheshire Cat grin that implies he's either smarter than anyone here or much, much stupider.) That the movie's oddly endearing climax combines fantasy role-play and a deep, abiding love of the music of KISS is just icing on a spiked cake.
Wain's filmography has been rocky (he made the sly teen-comedy parody "Wet Hot American Summer" as well as the horribly unfunny "The Ten"), but he knows enough to trust his stars. Rudd in particular is becoming something unusual in American movies: A leading man who appears to truly not give a damn.
He's handsome and obviously smart; he could have had Ben Affleck's career if he'd tried a little harder, or maybe Tobey Maguire's. But there's something proudly lazy in Rudd; those bleak green eyes hold contempt for the whole business of stardom. "Role Models" plays well within the Judd Apatow playpen, but its shaggy-dog dyspepsia renders it both less commercial and a little more dangerous, and Rudd is why. He's W.C. Fields trapped in the body of Cary Grant.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.