September 28, 2006

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School for Scoundrels (PG-13)
Penguin-pajama-wearing dork fights alpha-dog ne’er-do-well in School for Scoundrels, a movie that, if nothing else, lends some credence to the idea that Jon Heder can move beyond Napoleon Dynamite.

Not far beyond, but at least this movie doesn’t have him pulling tater tots out of his leg pockets.

Roger (Heder) is still not the slickest of guys. A parking attendant, he is easily intimidated, and in his private life Roger’s too shy to ask out next door neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), though he pines for her. After Roger is dumped by yet another kid who wants to see other Big Brothers, pal Ian (David Cross) tells him to call a number for help. When he calls, Roger is confronted by a very confrontational voice telling him to show up at a class with $5,000 in cash. Roger arrives at the appointed hour and meets Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), a manliness teacher who takes his motivational style from the retired-drill-sergeant-turned-gym-coach who always insisted on having a class of 13-year-olds shimmy up a rope. Dr. P encourages the students to pick fights, to play it cool with the ladies and to quit apologizing for, well, everything.

Roger finds himself slowly growing a backbone under Dr. P’s tutelage and even finding the courage to ask out Amanda. Perhaps he should have grown that backbone a little slower. As is Dr. P’s tradition when he senses a man coming into his own, Dr. P challenges Roger. First, he starts to worm his way into Amanda’s life and then, as Roger starts to fight back, Dr. P wrecks havoc in the rest of Roger’s life.

Based, roughly, on a 1960s British comedy of the same name, I sense that somewhere this movie lost confidence in itself to an even greater degree than the nerds of Dr. P’s class. Heder and Thornton are perfectly capable comic actors, but the movie isn’t so sure. It crowds them with the likes of Cross, Sarah Silverman, Todd Louiso, Luis Guzman, Ben Stiller, Michael Clark Duncan and Horatio Sanz. Any one of these mostly comic actors has seem capable of creating comic performances themselves. And yet with all these players crowded onto one stage, the movie starts to feel desperate. “Laugh,” it says. “I’m funny. Laugh. Be merry. Tell your friends. Love me, please.”

At a certain point, you start to cringe a bit in embarrassment for Todd Phillips, writer and director of this film but also of Starsky and Hutch and Old School, most that felt much looser, much more assured.

School for Scoundrels has moments of humor and glints of a kind of mean-spirited humor which, paired with Heder’s natural sweetness, might have balanced out and created a smart movie. Instead, we have a confused, unsure jumble (mean, but apologetic about its meanness) that itself seems in need of a little self-help pick-me-up. C

— Amy Diaz


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