Heder and Thornton drive comedy off-course
Observer Scene | Monday, September 18, 2006
Funny but disappointing can best explain director Todd Phillips’ comedy “School for Scoundrels.” Although the movie starts out promisingly strong, the man who gave us “Old School” delivers a weak and forgettable second act – one that could, and should, have been so much more.
“School for Scoundrels” stars Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) as Roger, a lonely NYC meter maid, and Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad Santa”) as Dr. P, the no nonsense “scoundrel” who teaches Roger how to win his crush, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). When Roger soon jumps to the head of the class Dr. P teaches, the good doctor’s competitive habits set him out on a path to destroy Roger’s life and steal his girl.
The movie’s premise – foul-mouthed Billy Bob Thornton schools losers on how to be winners – would be enough to satisfy an hour and half of laughs. However, the comedy strays from its best attribute – the school and its classes – and instead delves too deeply into the battle for Amanda’s affections between Roger and Dr. P. In fact, it could hardly be called a battle at all. Nothing either man does to the other is particularly life-shattering or reprehensible. The shock factor in this male competition is nil.
Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay, continues his pattern of presenting weak female supporting characters that exist solely for male character development. “School for Scoundrels” follows the typical storyline for this kind of movie – good boy likes girl, amoral boy gets girl, good boy is only person who can save duped girl from amoral boy and herself. Amanda is another forgettable female character in a male-dominated movie.
The only other dominant female character is Amanda’s roommate, played by Sarah Silverman. Silverman’s character bombards Roger with deadpan insults in one of the least funny performances by a comedian this year.
However, as in all disappointing comedies, there are beacons of light and laughter. The highlight of the movie is a no-holds-bar paintball rumble in which Dr. P’s students must assert themselves, abandon all fear, and escape the traumatizing punishments of Dr. P’s sidekick, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan).
In other instances, Roger recovers his stolen standard-issue New Balance sneakers from a couple of thugs by telling their mother, and he is forced to stand up to an obnoxious co-worker only to receive a swirly in return.
The comedy would have done better to stick to these “boys becoming men” moments. Heder may have carried “Napoleon Dynamite,” but he holds a stronger audience interest in the first half of this movie when he acts with an ensemble. The second half offers weaker performances from Heder and surprisingly, Thornton. Although clearly a cad, Dr. P’s motivations remain unclear. Despite a so-so cameo by Ben Stiller explaining Dr. P’s mischievous past, we still never feel his ambition, pride or aggressiveness that would explain his backstabbing actions.
In the end, the movie is worth seeing – if at all – for its first act. After that, it veers off its solid path into an over-long and under-developed love story that quickly grows tired and boring. If this is an attempt to recapture any “Old School” glory, Phillips miserably fails. “School for Scoundrels” does not deliver an endless treasure trove of funny quotes for the American public to overuse. Instead, the movie is good for only a few laughs before the drama-heavy Oscar season begins.