You ever notice how some comedies are just too nice for their own good? School for Scoundrels is such a specimen; a film that is, on the surface, about the age-old battle of two men competing for the affection of one woman. Under the surface, however, there is a darker tone; one of the ugly side of the male domain. The movie tries to cover both bases with a friendly PG-13 rating, but major effect is lost. I can only imagine how uproarious this would have been had it been in full-on Bad Santa-style mode.
A remake of the 1960 British film School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!, the film centers on Roger (Heder), a down-and-out meter maid who is far too shy to ask out his crush, Amanda (Barrett), whom coincidentally lives down the hall in his apartment complex. Acting on a tip from a good friend, Roger enrolls in a secret course taught by a major alpha male who goes by the moniker Dr. P (Thornton). He’s a tough cookie, constantly telling the class what losers they are and what they need to do to rope in the girl of their dreams. Things take an interesting turn when Dr. P begins to win over Amanda; leaving Roger to use the skills he has acquired to beat Dr. P at his own game.
The synopsis alone gives the brain an overdose of how many comedic possibilities exist, but few are capitalized upon. After a funny first half, featuring some great classroom scenes and a wonderfully executed paint ball romp, the screenplay, by Todd Phillips (who also directed) and Scot Armstrong, fizzles to mediocrity as Roger and Dr. P exchange jabs that are sometimes funny, but largely mundane.
If anyone had told me that Jon Heder would still be getting work solely off his Napoleon Dynamite work over two years after the fact, I would have said they’re crazy. But lo and behold, Heder is still alive and kicking, doing his one trick pony routine. While he does sporadically offer some good comic timing, the jig is up in my mind. He’s simply not a strong enough actor to carry a film as the main character. Thornton, looking almost plasticized, can get laughs any day of the week with his tough bastard routine. Here you can tell he just wants to let loose with a string of F-bombs, but it never happens as he is retrained by the PG-13 rating. He still emerges as the funniest aspect of the film, which is a tribute to his screen presence in this case. Jacinda Barrett isn’t given much to do, but there is some fine supporting work from Sarah Silverman, Matt Walsh, Todd Louiso, and Michael Clarke Duncan. In what can only be described as beyond bizarre, Ben Stiller surfaces as an old student of Dr. P’s. The only rational explanation for this is that Stiller was contractually obligated to appear because he barely garners any laughs and seems remarkably out of place.
School for Scoundrels could have (and should have) been a biting, scathing comedy. There is great talent involved here, but they’re all muzzled. Those who can’t get enough of Heder’s shtick will likely come away pleased, but those expecting a raucous, even offensive, comedy had best diminish their expectations.
Length: 100 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence.
Theatrical Release: September 29, 2006
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong. Based upon the novel “School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!” by Stephen Potter. 1960 screenplay by Hal E. Chester & Patricia Moyes.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz, Todd Louiso