Sunday, October 01, 2006

Movie Review: "School for Scoundrels"

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Luis Guzman, David Cross, Horatio Sanz, Sarah Silverman and Michael Clarke Duncan
Directed by Todd Phillips

Official Web site

One of the trickier sub-genres to successfully pull off in movies is a black comedy, as it frequently is inhabited by some unlikable characters, or at least puts likable characters into unfortunate situations. Excellent examples of the genre include “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Ruthless People” and of course, “Dr. Strangelove.” There could certainly be some debate as to whether “School for Scoundrels” can actually qualify as a black comedy, as its PG-13 rating almost seems the movie is pulling punches, while also trying to uncomfortably mesh romance into the mix.

But however the film is officially classified, it’s certainly less successful than it should be, taking into account its solid cast.

The film stars Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) as Roger, a guy suffering from serious self-confidence issues. First, he’s a parking meter cop, who’s the target of ridicule from his co-workers and has been rejected by several children in the Big Brothers program. Add in his problem with talking to his sweet and available Australian neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) along with his frequent panic attacks, and you’ve got a ripe candidate for a life overhaul.

Enter Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), a mysterious adult education teacher who has a radical confidence-boosting class that tears down its students before building them back up. Dr. P’s class is both secretive and expensive ($5,000), which makes one wonder why people that have this kind of money readily available wouldn’t just seek out counseling.

But that quibble aside, some of the early scenes with Dr. P interacting with his class show promise, allowing Thornton to show off his darkly funny comic timing that he’s honed in movies such as “Bad Santa” and “The Bad News Bears.” However, that does point out that maybe it’s time for the versatile Thornton to start seeking out roles of a different ilk, lest he start being typecast. A trailer for his next film (“Mr. Woodcock”) that ran before “School for Scoundrels” looks quite a bit like more of the same.

The film starts going a bit off the rails once a competition for the affections of Amanda begins between Roger and Dr. P, who seems to make it a habit of destroying the life of one of his students in each class. Evidently, it’s his form of entertainment. Unfortunately, that entertainment doesn’t really cross over to the audience, as the two engage in a contest of one-upmanship that produces few laughs.

Part of the problem is that Heder’s comic range seems rather limited, making his rather sudden transformation into a more ruthless foil to Thornton’s Dr. P a bit of a stretch. Thornton’s comic skills are rather muted in the second half of the film, while skilled comics such as Sarah Silverman and David Cross are largely wasted – a bit of a surprise, seeing as how the film is co-written and directed by Todd Phillips (“Old School”). An uncredited appearance by Ben Stiller as a former student in the film’s third act is a welcome sight, but by then, even he can’t quite lift the comedy much beyond mediocrity.

“School for Scoundrels” seems to want to be a movie that contains both a mean streak and a heart, but ultimately is lacking a little in both departments.

Grade: C
(Rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence.)

What’s Next
Billy Bob Thornton - Starring with Seann William Scott and Susan Sarandon in “Mr. Woodcock,” as a former high school gym class teacher who made life hell for his students. Now, he’s set to marry the mother (Sarandon) of one of his former students (Scott). Set for release in January 2007.

Jon Heder - A thirtysomething slacker (Heder) who lives with his mom realizes his sweet set-up is threatened when she hears wedding bells with her self-help guru beau. The 2007 release also stars Diane Keaton and Jeff Daniels.

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