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‘Role Models’ worth looking up to

With “Role Models,” Paul Rudd may suddenly find himself getting the attention he has largely avoided, because his work here is at a game-changing level for a young actor.

Let us now praise Paul Rudd. While this leading man seems to eschew the usual off-screen antics that put performers on the public’s radar, Rudd dependably brings a dry, intelligent wit to movie after movie. Whether in comedy classics (“Clueless,” “Knocked Up”) or clunkers (“Over Her Dead Body”), he has quietly accumulated an impressive résumé of engaging, entertaining performances.

With “Role Models,” he may suddenly find himself getting the attention he has largely avoided, because his work here is at a game-changing level for a young actor. The fact that he also shares a writing credit should provide a boost as well.

Rudd stars as Danny, a spokesman for an energy-drink company whose job involves appearing at schools and telling kids to consume his swill rather than doing drugs. He’s accompanied on these gigs by Wheeler (Seann William Scott), a skirt-chasing slacker who performs alongside him dressed as a minotaur.

Danny’s stuck in a rut and bitter about it — early on, he takes out his frustrations on a coffee-shop barista over the ridiculous tall/grande/venti nomenclature — and his anhedonia drives away his girlfriend lawyer Beth (Elizabeth Banks, who’s currently wooing underachievers in two other films, “W.” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”).

Frustrated by life’s many disappointments, Danny gets into an altercation with a tow-truck driver that leads to him and Wheeler being forced to mentor kids in a Big Brothers–type program to avoid going to jail. Under the watchful eye of former addict Gayle (Jane Lynch) — who never encountered a metaphor she couldn’t mangle — Danny is assigned to Renaissance Faire–obsessed geek Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), while Wheeler tries to bond with foul-mouthed youngster Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson).

And yes, of course, removing their gazes from their own navels teaches Danny and Wheeler valuable life lessons, and their mentorship does wind up improving the lives of their young charges, but what’s great about “Role Models” is that even when the plot threatens to go all Dr. Phil, director David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer”) never softens the film’s comic prickliness. The repartee remains snappy, and the script doesn’t surrender to schmaltz.

Rudd’s slow burn and deadpan have never been sharper, and it makes for a perfect contrast with the cheesy zest that Scott gives to Wheeler. Mintz-Plasse’s Augie might on the surface seem like a variation of his brilliant turn as McLovin in last year’s “Superbad,” but he’s called upon to go deeper and stranger here, which he pulls off perfectly. And even if the whole cursing-kid thing isn’t the laugh-getter it once was, Thompson’s gusto makes the stream of profanities coursing from his mouth feel shocking all over again. Kudos, too, to Lynch, for making what could have been a routine character into a wonderfully oddball creation.

While I haven’t been a big fan of Wain’s film and TV (“Stella,” “The State”) work, “Role Models” is a well-crafted concoction, from the brilliant payoff of a running gag about KISS to its unique blend of crassness and huggability. This film heralds another director who can join with Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith in what is becoming another golden age for R-rated comedy.