I am unnaturally obsessed with the filmmaking family of producer Judd Apatow. Probably because the producer as selling point is such a rare occurrence, all things considered; my immediate sense is that it hasn't happened since the reign of David O. Selznick (there are other classic examples, like Val Lewton's horror film unit at RKO or Arthur Freed's musical unit at MGM, but I'm not certain that contemporary audiences thought of them in terms of their producers). And it's happened so fast - yes, Apatow's name has been floating around since the TV series Freaks and Geeks in 1999, but really, it's only been just a year since his particular brand of funny became, well, a brand.

I indulge in this aimless musing largely because it's more fun for me than coming around to Drillbit Taylor, a lifeless comedy whose primary point of interest is that one day, it may be the film we point to where the wheels fell off the Apatow cart. After two good and successful films in 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the collective has two bad, and...it's hard to say whether Drillbit will be a financial bust or not. But they can't be thrilled with its opening weekend box-office. And while Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story can be dismissed as much more like the producer's work with Will Ferrell back in the day, Drillbit is squarely in the "Apatow style," so much so that it's probably the film's most obvious flaw: it is very much the less-amusing, less heartfelt prequel to Superbad with protagonists essentially mapped directly from that film's leading triumvirate. Somehow, the fact that both films were co-written by Seth Rogen just makes it worse.

The set-up is pleasantly forthright: on their first day of high-school, the shy one who pines for a girl just a tiny bit above his station (Nate Hartley, as "Wade" or "Young Michael Cera") and his BFF, the loudmouth fat one with a dirty mind (Troy Gentile as "Ryan" or "Wow, they just sat you down in front of Jonah Hill's audition tapes and made you memorise them, didn't they? That was a mean thing to do.") meet the cocksure, oblivious supergeek (David Dorfman, "Emmit"), and are immediately tagged by the reigning bully, Filkins (Alex Frost). A week passes as rather terrifying depravities are laid upon the three young ones, and they decide to take matters into their own hands, hiring a deceitful homeless man named "Drillbit" Taylor (Owen Wilson), who makes them think that he is a Special Ops-trained Gulf War vet, the perfect choice for a bodyguard and personal trainer. He initially plans to grab as much money as he can manage from the kids, then flee to northern Canada.

Keep it simple: the film just isn't that funny, which is ultimately the only mortal sin a comedy can commit. Except it's not just "not funny" in a sort of global sense, the problem is the very particular manner in which it is not funny; it is indeed upsetting and vicious in certain ways that grind funniness to death underfoot. Primarily, I'm referring to the bully Filkins. No caricatured 1980s style jerk punk is he, but rather a lifelike, nasty piece of work who seems like a seed of Fascism more than an obstacle to overcome. His menace is not funny-mean, it is terrifying-mean, and it doesn't help matters that the three boys he treats as the objects of his brutality are so totally small and helpless before him, especially the inordinately lanky Hartley, who looks like he'd snap in two in a strong wind. And what of the titular Drillbit? Of course his redemption narrative is obvious a mile away, but before it kicks in he's essentially a charming doofus playing a long con on three earnest teens, with every intention of leaving them out to dry in a misplaced sense of class warfare. Ah, comedy!

One thing in the film works: Owen Wilson. In his last film before his suicide attempt (I can't explain why that feels relevant), he turns a mostly reprehensible character into a legitimate comic hero. Now, we've all seen Wilson turn a lousy script into the stuff of good humor, but I'm not certain that I've ever witnessed him do this much work to carry so bad a screenplay. Most of his lines and situations aren't really funny on paper, but something about his determined grin and lopsided facial features is winning, enough to make clumsy dialogue seem witty. He is the sole reason to watch the movie, using nothing more than his innate charisma to wrest honest chuckles from the jaws of banality.

So it goes without saying, he's a supporting character. This film is through and through about the kids, though Drillbit gets a peculiar subplot romancing the English teacher Lisa (played by a disappointingly underused Leslie Mann), and it's no insult to the genuinely talented young actors playing the leads that the material falls flat. Imagine Superbad without the vulgarity and you've pretty much nailed it; except that the vulgarity was the voice of that film, transmuted into a sort of bent poetry. Drillbit Taylor has the comic edge of a middle-tier sitcom: not aggressively stupid, perhaps, but just kind of pokey and safe. The teens aren't interesting characters, compared to their counterparts in the earlier movie. They're just random teens with curious body types. The actors have nothing to work with, and unlike the grizzled vet Wilson, they don't have the training to make material work despite itself.

As for director Steven Brill: you probably haven't heard his name and I don't suppose you'll want to file it away for future reference. He is perfectly unimaginative, shooting the film in a strictly functional style, yet another way that the whole project oozes TV-level proficiency. His career highlights to this point have been two of the less-beloved Adam Sandler vehicles, but let's not hold that against him; he's an honest hack, getting the job done without trying to do it well. The film's pace is slack (unlike some Apatow comedies, it has a manageable running time, but it feels the longest), the jokes aren't given any focus. I have nothing more to say about Steven Brill.

Or about the film. It's an empty thing, an exercise in gentle lowbrow comedy that isn't funny, isn't really lowbrow, and isn't at all gentle. At best it's a placeholder with a fine performance from a gifted actor. At worst, it's pretty much the same thing.