School for Scoundrels has all the raw elements needed to be a classic comedy, but it never finds the right rhythm. The movie is ostensibly about cruelty and calculation, yet its tone is too nice. Considering that it comes from director/co-writer Todd Phillips, who specializes in politically incorrect comedies such as Road Trip and Old School, the general sweetness is something of a surprise.
Jon Heder plays Roger, a nebbishy New York City meter maid who frequently suffers from panic attacks. He allows himself to be intimidated by someone he’s supposed to be ticketing, and he can never muster up the courage to ask out his neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), on whom he has a crush. In short, his life sucks. Roger’s friend Ian (David Cross) offers some help. He gives Roger the phone number for “a guy who runs a thing” and encourages him to call.
Answering that call is the mysteriously named Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), who runs a class that teaches nerdy guys how to be winners. The secrecy level required to attend the class makes Fight Club look a publicly advertised event. There’s even a muscle-bound assistant named Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan) who keeps everyone in line through sheer intimidation. Dr. P offers all kinds of self-confidence lessons, most of which involve manipulating women into liking you. His advice includes such gems as “lie, lie, and lie some more.” Amazingly, it works and Roger is soon confident enough to begin romancing Amanda.
Dr. P soon becomes jealous that his star pupil is doing so well. As a test, he tries to steal Amanda away by pretending to be a widowed doctor. When Roger finds out that his teacher is now his competitor, he launches a counterattack, using all the skills Dr. P has so carefully taught him. It becomes a fight to see who can win the girl. Roger eventually seeks help from one of the guy’s former students (Ben Stiller) who Dr. P pulled the same trick on.
So there you go. You have three solid comedy stars - Thornton, Heder, and Stiller - plus a supporting cast that also includes Sarah Silverman (as Amanda’s roommate) and Luis Guzman (as Roger’s commanding officer). You also have a potentially interesting premise. In this age of self-help books and the Dr. Phil-ization of America, there’s certainly room for a comedy that suggests the way to personal fulfillment is in the ruthless manipulation of others.
Unfortunately, School for Scoundrels doesn’t have that kind of bite. The humor here is more sitcom-y than satiric or pointed. For instance, there’s an extended scene where Dr. P has his students practice cutthroat tactics on a paintball course, where they end up accidentally shooting one another point blank. The guys are all so hapless that they don’t know how to handle it when they’re given weaponry. An edgier way to go would have been to have them relish the chance to take out their aggressions and intentionally lay into each other.
We don’t get any real sense of the competition between Roger and Dr. P either. I mean, we clearly see that they’re rivals, but their attempts to destroy one another are mostly pretty tame. While playing tennis, Roger aims the balls at his teacher. Dr. P later tries to make it look like Roger vandalized Amanda’s apartment. A comedy such as this needs to sting a little more. We expect it to come dangerously close to crossing the line; in actuality, it walks in the general direction of the line, but stops several steps away from it. Consequently, School for Scoundrels never really reaches a point where it becomes funny. I chuckled occasionally, but the big laughs I was expecting never materialized. The film’s tone needed to be more Dr. P and less Roger.
It is not a movie without pleasures, though. Thornton is well cast as a deceiving jerk. Yes, he’s played this kind of part before (in better films) but he still does it like nobody’s business. I also liked Jon Heder. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to cast him as a lovable loser – again. However, Roger is less overtly dorky than Napoleon Dynamite. He’s more of a decent-but-confused person, and Heder’s performance suggests that the actor is capable of doing more than just repeating his Napoleon shtick.
Even though it never achieves its comic potential, the movie is at least amiable to watch. There’s enough going on to hold your attention, thanks mostly to a cast that is extremely likeable. You can also catch frequent glimmers of how School for Scoundrels could have been great. There’s a sharp line of dialogue here, a clever idea there, and so on.
It has been said – quite correctly – that studios often shy away from R-rated films because that rating limits the admission of teenagers. The downside is that movies are occasionally watered down a little bit. I have no idea whether Todd Phillips had ever planned a harder cut of this story; it’s clear, though, that a more restrictive rating would have allowed School for Scoundrels to have the bitterness and venom it needed to really work.
( 1/2 out of four)
School for Scoundrels is rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat