A film review by Craig J. Koban
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS
2006, PG-13, 101 mins.
Dr. P: Billy Bob Thornton / Roger: Jon Heder / Amanda: Jacinda Barrett / Lesher: Michael Clarke Duncan / Becky: Sarah Silverman
Directed by Todd Phillips / Written by Phillips and Scot Armstrong / Based on the novel by Stephen Potter
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS has a great deal going for it. It’s hip, crass, and funny – the latter albeit in sporadic dosages – throughout its 101 minutes. It has a cast that seems perfectly assembled. We have Billy Bob Thornton playing the wiseass, hard edged, and acid tongued motivational coach and Jon “NAPOLEON DYNAMITE” Heder as his nerdy, virginal, and universally uncool student that is trying to become suave and sophisticated. We also have co-writer and director Todd Phillips, who has made two of the funniest and refreshingly raunchy comedies of the last few years in 2000’s ROAD TRIP and its follow-up, 2003’s OLD SCHOOL.
Yet, amidst all of the film’s notable talent in front of and behind the camera, as well as with the hearty and jolly laughs it modestly manages to generate, there is nothing remarkably unique about the story for SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS. Young hapless man wants to become a man and another stronger and more confident tutor will teach him all the in’s and out’s to being a real swinger. Then, as part of the student’s “therapy”, the teacher hooks up with the student’s would-be girlfriend and the gloves are inevitably dropped to see whether or not it’s the pupil or the master that will emerge victorious. Pretty much all of SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS feels familiar (did they not do something remarkably similar with ANGER MANAGEMENT with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson a few years back?). The other problem with the film is that it lacks…well…balls.
The film is yet another example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is disappointing considering that it is the prime handiwork of Phillips, who has taken great pains in the past to reveling in all sorts of crude, slapstick, hard-R rated testosterone driven hilarity in his other films. His past films, like OLD SCHOOL and ROAD TRIP, were pleasantly man-centric and insidiously funny and vulgar forays into the types of comedies that Hollywood seemed to have abandoned in the 1980’s. I guess that’s why SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS is a minor letdown. It wants to have sharp edged teeth and go for the jugular with its laughs, but it’s almost too sweet, sanitized, and sentimental for its own good. Instead of being a rough, rabble-rousing black comedy with a rapier wit and sensibility, we get something more ham-invested and cornball, not to mention predictable and lame.
I find it perplexing that Phillips would go for a more decidedly audience friendly and pleasing comedy. Considering the fact that his other past comedies had scenes that involved performing oral sex on carrots, having men’s rectums pierced to induce an erection, and mud wrestling that involved college women and a 90-year-old man, it’s kind of sad that SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS is so unremarkably timid. This is a black comedy that is too white and clean, a gross out comedy that is not vile enough, and a stupid comedy that tries to have too much of a brain in its head. Not only that, but when the film has – at its core – an unrelenting level of cruelty being perpetrated by one character on another, then why is it not more equally acerbic with its tone? Beat’s me.
At the beginning of SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS we are introduced to Roger, played by the young man that seems to be the poster boy for classless on-screen doofuses, Jon Heder. Sure, the kid is rigidly typecast in these roles, but he sure fills their shoes well. He looks and feels like dweebs we have all known at some point in our lives. Anyhoo’, Roger lives a life of solitude, incredibly low self-esteem, and a general inability to score with women (he would get along famously with Andy Stitzer from THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN). How big of a pathetic loser is Roger? For starters, he is coerced into paying a parking ticket that he gave to a gang member who threatens him and, to put the final nail in his geek-status coffin, he is kicked out of the Big Brother Program because he has been rejected by at least three other little brothers. Yeah, he’s that big of a loser.
Now, Roger at least has a big heart and his eyes on someone else, most notably his irrepressibly cute neighbour at his apartment complex, Amanda (the irrepressibly cute Jacinda Barret). He has, let’s say, a real lack of confidence when it comes to approaching her and letting her know how he feels. Maybe it’s his own lack of self-esteem, or lack of poise and sophistication, or maybe it has something to do with Amanda’s cast-iron bitch of a roommate (played by the funny Sarah Silverman), who mentally torments at every turn.
Regardless, Roger realizes that he definitely needs some assistance in the assertiveness department. As fate would have it, one of Roger’s friends lets him in on a “special” school where the teacher instructs boys to become not only men, but power hungry lions that don’t ask for what they want, but rather take it. Realizing that his self help books (some including the humorously titled Shake Your Shyness and You Can be Happy No Matter What and I'm Worth It, Darn It) are not working for him at all, he decides to gather up the $5000 in tuition money and enroll in the school.
The school is taught by an upper echelon jerk named Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton, terrifically playing this type of role in his sleep). He runs his school on simple, modest principles to achieve results, more specifically through fear, intimidation, and the possibility of being horribly raped. Assisting him is his loyal bodyguard and sidekick, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan) who does a fairly good job of scary the bejezzes out of Dr. P’s students just by looking at them. Dr. P’s school is one unorthodox manhood class, to say the least. It tries to make the students abandon all of their meekness and instead channel their inner, volatile beasts. And if he has to do that by both verbally and physically assaulting them, then he will.
Some of his lessons are real howlers. I especially appreciated one that involved the students role-playing how to “properly” treat a woman on the first date. Flowers and compliments are not required. As a matter of fact, one of Dr. P’s steps to scoring with chicks is to “never, ever compliment them.” His other rules are equally outlandish. Rules two through three state, respectively, “To relate as much as possible” alongside being willing to “lie, lie, and whenever possible, lie some more.” When one reject in the class asks him “how his will create a long lasting and meaningful relationship,” he dryly responds, “Let’s get you all laid first, okay? That’ll be the first miracle.”
Roger, amazingly, becomes Dr. P’s star pupil and garners up enough spunk and courage to finally ask out the angelic Amanda. Their date goes fairly well, and just when he thinks his life is finally starting to go his way, something very unexpected happens. Dr. P himself starts to develop a very keen interest in Amanda and begins to use his entire bag of tricks to score with her! Why does he do this? Well, it seems that he does not take kindly to over-achievers making him look bad to the rest of the class, not to mention that he does not look too favorably on those that achieve too much too fast. Of course, the Attila the Hun doctor professes to only be trying to have his way with Amanda to provoke Roger to go even further within himself to unleash more untapped womanizing potential. However, it soon appears evident that the teacher is starting to seriously develop the hots for Amanda, which leads Roger to face off, bastard to bastard, with his mentor in a winner take all, A-hole slugfest.
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS takes awhile to start generating laughs (which, in itself, is not a good sign for a comedy), but once it starts to get rolling the laughs become fairly frequent and well sustained. Some of the scenes are real hilarious doozies, like an inspired and madcap sequence involving taking all of the cadets paintballing and yet another where Dr. P and Roger pine for Amanda’s attention during a mixed tennis match. Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton have field days playing their respective parts, and the film is able to generate a sly level of anticipation and intrigue in terms of us rooting for the once-hapless Roger dishing out a mighty fine glass of comeuppance to his teacher. The film, for the most part, is pleasing and funny enough to not be labeled a failure.
However, it’s not that the film lacks laughs, but that it lacks an appropriate handling of the underlining subject matter. The film is – overall – pedestrian and formulaic. The Jacinda Barret character is essentially more of a plot device than a real, believable persona. Also, the teacher and student don’t really lash out at each other in the truly vile and repulsive ways that you would assume they would. Instead, the film is a bit too cuddly with its execution than it really should be. For a movie that wants to be hard and lean n' mean like a tiger, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS is a tame little pussycat.
SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS is not an entirely wasted effort. Watching the likes of Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton play opposite of each other is appealing enough, and their individual performances are fine-tuned enough to generate enough chuckles throughout the film. Also, as a farce, the film garners our interest in its characters and allows us to cheer for its heroic dweeb to achieve an ultimate moral victory against his seemingly insurmountable and unbeatable opponent. Yet, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS unfortunately abandons any preconceived notions of being rougher and tougher with its material and instead tries to be one of those lame and easy-going PG-13 studio vehicles that the Hollywood machine churns out with far too much frequency. The film, for all of its vindictiveness displayed in it, lacks a cruelly calculating spirit and tone. It is intermittently amusing, to be sure, but what it sorely lacks is a nasty tenacity.