You know what I realized today as I watched “School For Scoundrels”, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder? Since I have started writing movie reviews, I have used a 5 Star rating system and today, I realized there is a rating that I have never used. No, “School for Scoundrels” isn’t so good that it needs a rating higher than 5. It is so bad it needs a rating lower than 1 star. So, here it is. My first rating of…
Roger Waddell (Jon Heder), a meek New York City meter maid, is having a bad time at work (anytime someone confronts him, he offers to pay their ticket) and in his social life (he can’t muster the courage to ask his neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett, “Poseidon”, “The Last Kiss”) out on a date). When his third “Little Brother” in a row dumps him, the recreation center manager (David Cross) suggests he call a mysterious phone number, just like he did. It changed his life. Sitting at home, Roger calls the number and reaches Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) who instructs him to show up at the Learning Annex carrying a manila envelope with $5,000 cash. When he arrives, he and another new student meet Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), Dr. P’s assistant. Soon, they learn Dr. P is running a very unorthodox class in how to gain confidence and change your life. Looking at the collection of sad sacks, he becomes disgusted and ends class early. Then Lesher hands out beepers. They must carry the beepers and initiate a confrontation with someone nearby when instructed. Other items on the curriculum include a paintball course for the students, wearing no protective gear, classes in ‘how to win the girl’ with Lesher playing the female role and more. Soon, Roger begins to excel in the class and gains the confidence to ask Amanda out on a date. But Dr. P is a competitive guy and doesn’t like to be upstaged by his students, so he begins to romance Amanda in an attempt to steal her away from him.
“School For Scoundrels”, written and directed by Todd Phillips (“Old School”, “Road Trip”), has a very promising premise, we have seen similar set-ups in hundreds of comedies, but every joke is just wrong, oddly paced and there are no laughs throughout this tedious, tedious film.
I heard part of an interview with Phillips on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in which he stated he wrote the role of Dr. P specifically for Thornton. The actor needs to be more cautious of such flattery in the future. The problem is that we never learn why Dr. P acts like he does. He is a real jerk towards these guys. Sure, they need some coaching, they need some guidance, but Dr. P just does mean things to them, or stereotypical things. In the session when he coaches the men how to treat a lady, he instructs them to “Lie, lie, lie, then lie some more.” “Never pay a compliment’. Yawn. We have heard these instructions in hundreds of sitcoms. In “Scoundrels”, Roger tries to use some of this advice during his date with Amanda. Yes, you would expect that. But when you expect so many things to happen, and they do, the writer and director should take these situations to another level. Phillips doesn’t even take some of them to the level we would expect. During the date, Roger tries to use the advice, but he can’t really, he’s too good natured, and Amanda ends up loving him. In other words, many of the expected jokes have no payoff resulting in a tedious, tedious exercise.
Another possible saving grace to such a film might come from the actor’s performances. But there again, we come up with zilch. Because we never learn anything about Dr. P, his actions have little or no meaning and there is no comedy involved in any of it. Billy Bob Thornton seems to be doing little more than collecting a paycheck. He never imbues the character with anything unusual or interesting as he has done so memorably in the past. Watching Thornton in this ‘comedy’, I couldn’t help but think of another one of his films. The trailers for “Bad Santa” looked like “Scoundrels” actually is, a poor excuse for a comedy. The difference is “Bad Santa” was a great black comedy. In “Scoundrels”, the set-up is wasted, the actors are wasted and any comedic momentum is completely obliterated by the writing and directing. This results in a tedious, tedious exercise.
I fear Jon Heder may be a one-hit wonder. I have yet to see him appear in anything with the promise or brilliance of his debut film “Napoleon Dynamite”. But then again, I avoided “The Benchwarmers”, his last film starring Rob Schneider and David Spade. I know, I know. I’m sure it was a comedic gem. But is Heder always going to play a hapless nerd? In “Scoundrels”, he is given a lot of opportunity to create laughter, but these moments just fall flat. In the opening minutes, as he patrols a neighborhood and then gives a ticket to a car parked next to a curb, two big African American guys run out and start pleading with him to stop writing the ticket. This is mildly amusing. Then, when he explains the ticket was already sent to headquarters, they start to threaten him and he jumps into the Meter Maid car and speeds away at 5 mph. Also, mildly amusing. But when the two guys take out a gun and shoot at his vehicle, causing the tires to go flat. Roger has a panic attack and faints and the amusement is gone. There is also the previously mentioned date with Amanda. Thankfully, this scene doesn’t go the expected ‘sit-com’ route. But then again, it doesn’t go anywhere.
Jacinda Barrett is more bland than anything else. Her main purpose in the film is to play sweet and gullible. On the one hand, Amanda has to accept a date with Roger, to show he can get a date with a woman. On the other hand, her character loses any credibility she may have had when she falls for Dr. P.
Ben Stiller makes a cameo, as heavily touted in the previews, but didn’t take a credit in the beginning of the film. I think there was a loophole in his contract somewhere allowing the studio to promote his involvement. He plays one of Dr. P’s former students, who now lives in Upstate New York with 50 cats. His performance isn’t even that funny.
David Cross, Horatio Sanz (“Saturday Night Live”) and Michael Clarke Duncan also collect paychecks in this thoroughly tedious exercise.
All blame for this film lies at the feet of writer and director Todd Phillips. Why did he think this film was funny? “Old School” and “Road Trip” each had their moments. In “Scoundrels”, there is a running joke about Lesher raping male students. The third time they mentioned it, I was still laughing. At one point, someone breaks into Amanda’s apartment painting graffiti everywhere indicating Roger was the culprit. Amanda is gullible enough to believe this. Then, Roger shows up at a tennis court and horns in on a game between Dr. P and Amanda. Every time Roger serves, he manages to hit Dr. P. Naturally, this will do nothing but drive her into his arms. But Roger doesn’t appear to have seen that episode of “Three’s Company”.
Please do me a favor and avoid this tedious, tedious excuse for a comedy. Promise me?
Did I mention it was a tedious, tedious exercise?