After he's humiliated in front of his dream girl—and the rest of his high school for good measure—freshman Nate Hartley isn't sure what to do about his continued harassment by über-bully Alex Frost. Frost, recapturing some of the dead-eyed malevolence he brought to the Columbine-inspired Gus Van Sant movie Elephant, is both bigger and quicker and completely relentless. Hartley has underdeveloped muscles and an overdeveloped conscience working against him, and Drillbit Taylor pauses uncomfortably as its hero realizes he can't think himself out of this impossible situation.
Unfortunately, it's one of the few moments to ring true in this Judd Apatow-produced comedy, written by Seth Rogen, Kristofor Brown, and Edmond Dantes (better known as the semi-reclusive John Hughes). Hartley plays one of three bullied kids—Troy Gentile and David Dorfman play his sidekicks—who enlist a homeless man (Owen Wilson) whom they believe to be an experienced security expert to protect them from Frost and his toadie. Their plan goes predictably, and slowly, awry, but not before Wilson strikes up a romance with a pretty, love-starved English teacher played by Leslie Mann.
Like most of Drillbit Taylor, that relationship sounds like it ought to generate more laughs than it does. Wilson's funny. Mann's funny. But paired together here, nothing works, in part because Wilson never sinks into the part of a man who seems sweetly addled in some scenes, oily and manipulative in others, and lacking the usual Wilson in all. The kids, on the other hand, do have clearly defined characters. Too bad they're defined by last year's Superbad. The soft-spoken Hartley steps into the Michael Cera role. Gentile, who's twice played a young Jack Black, fills in for Jonah Hill, and Dorfman, best known as the creepy kid from The Ring, plays a character too-nerdy-for-the-nerds who needs only a Hawaiian driver's license to be mistaken for McLovin.
The familiarity wouldn't matter if the gags weren't so belabored and, thanks to the PG-13 rating, neutered. And apart from a few scenes, nothing feels all that true to life. It's a tough call as to which is more awkward: the silly battle royale finale or the nerd vs. bully schoolyard rap-off. At least the latter establishes a sense of rhythm and urgency and lands a punchline or two, feats the film around it rarely achieves.