September 20, 2007

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Mr. Woodcock (PG-13)
Billy Bob Thornton is a gym teacher with a sadistic gleam in his eye when it comes to picking on fat kids or telling asthmatics to run a lap in Mr. Woodcock, a comedy stuck on how heee-larious its concept is.

Mr. Woodcock (Thornton) is less teacher and more drill sergeant to his class of middle school boys. His brand of teaching seems more about ordering laps and push-ups than offering any kind of actual athletic-related instruction. One husky boy who seems to bear the brunt of Woodcock’s berating grows up to be John Farley (Seann William Scott), a self-help author. Move past your past, he tells his adoring fans. Farley is mostly past his past, though when he gets an opportunity to return to his hometown and accept the Corn Cob Key to the city during the annual Cornival he decides, heck, what’s a little past-revisitng going to hurt?

His mom Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is delighted to see him and she even has some wonderful news to tell him — she has a boyfriend. Why, you even know him, she says, just as Mr. Woodcock comes walking through the door.

Thus begins John’s slide into insanity. Horrified at having to hang out with the still schmucky Woodcock, he decides he can’t let the gym teacher become his new daddy and enlists the help of another former Woodcock torture victim (Ethan Suplee) to break up the happy couple.

Meanwhile, occasionally phoning in from some better movie is Amy Poehler as John’s bitchy, alcoholic agent, desperately trying to get him back on track to finish the book tour. She is by far the funniest thing about this movie, even if her entire role was more or less summed up in the movie’s trailer and even if it seems straight from the “wacky supporting characters” aisle of Hack Depot, the bad writers’ do-it-yourself story-construction megamart. “Why can’t we have more Amy Poehler and less everything else?” I started to think some 10 minutes into the movie. Why can’t we have just Amy Poehler and no everything else?

More or less this same movie came out a few years ago — it was called Just Friends and starred Ryan Reynolds as a former fat kid who had grown into svelteness and fame. Sure, the love interest had a larger role and the tormenter wasn’t one gym teacher but dozens of kids who remembered Reynolds’ character’s fatness but more or less the same story played out — returning home to prove how successful he’d become led him back into the crazy-making snarl of his adolescent issues and moronic behavior ensued. I don’t think the tweaking of a few minor details and the inclusion of an evil gym teacher — that nemesis to nerdy kids everywhere — really warranted my having to sit through this movie again.

And speaking of “again” — please, Billy Bob Thornton, find a new character type or at least take your School of Scoundrels-devilishness back to the truly black comedies of Bad Santa and quit playing the bad-seed-lite in these throwaway comedies. With the new fall season starting over on the small screen, nobody has to sit through movie repeats. D

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference. Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert, Mr. Woodcock is an hour and 27 minutes and is distributed in wide release by New Line Cinema.