When I was in high school, my gym teacher was not particularly nice to me. Stories of his visible disdain for my lack of athletic prowess could fill up this entire review, but here’s the most egregious example. We were on the mats doing gymnastics. While attempting to do a handstand, my arm gave out and I landed flat on my face. This caused my glasses to bend and the stem hinge to slice open my cheek. With blood running down my face, I asked Mr. X -as I will refer to him - if I could go to the nurse’s office. He looked at me with a mixture of scorn and disgust before sneering, “For what?” (That was in the mid-80’s. Of course, today a student bleeding all over the mat room would be considered a biohazard.) Since he wouldn’t let me see the nurse, I went down to the locker room to clean off the blood. The bell rang and Mr. X came down with the rest of the class, then promptly chewed me out in front of everyone for leaving the gym area without his permission.
Man, I did not like that guy at all.
Why am I telling you this? Because the new comedy Mr. Woodcock is about a nasty gym teacher, not unlike my own, and his hapless student, not unlike me. I was excited to see this movie because I know for a fact that a great comedy could be made about the sadism that almost seems to be a requirement for Phys Ed teachers. (Don’t send me hate mail – I know some very kind gym teachers as well.) This subject is potentially a goldmine for laughs. Comedically, Mr. Woodcock should be a vicious, bloodthirsty game of dodgeball, but in reality, it’s softball all the way.
Seann William Scott plays John Farley, the author of a best-selling self-improvement book called “Letting Go.” He returns to his hometown to accept a key to the city, only to discover that his mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is dating Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), the gym teacher who mocked and tormented him as a child. Horrified by this prospect, John tries to do everything possible to interfere with the relationship, including recruiting an old pal (Ethan Suplee) to dig up dirt on the educator. Meanwhile, John’s agent (Amy Poehler) is disturbed that he’s wasting time on this task instead of plugging his book on the Oprah show. (“She farts on a book and it sells a million copies,” says the agent.)
I love this premise. I really do. And casting Billy Bob Thornton in the title role is absolutely perfect. No one could pull this character off like he does. Thornton wisely does not play Woodcock with a heart of gold underneath. He is a mean, surly guy who despises wimps and makes no apologies for it. The rest of the cast is not as solid as Thornton. In fact, Seann William Scott is badly miscast as a touchy-feely self-help guru. Scott has an orneriness about him that feels wrong; you can’t help but think that he’d punch out a guy like Mr. Woodcock in real life. Neither can the actor make funny John’s increasing comic frustration with the teacher. About halfway through the film, it dawned on me that Ben Stiller would have owned this role and been a much better comic foil for Thornton. Sparks would have flown. With Scott, there are no sparks, just fizzle.
Now, I’m not going to knock Susan Sarandon, one of the best actresses working today, but what is she doing in this movie? Sarandon has made a career avoiding thankless roles such as this. In an age where actresses over a certain age routinely have no choice but to accept worthless mother-or-wife-of-protagonist roles, she has defied the odds. It comes as a shock, then, to see her in a movie that can find no use for her considerable talent.
But let’s get back to the men because that’s where the real problem lies. Here’s the most fatal flaw: Mr. Woodcock is much more likeable than John. He is supposed to be the bad guy, but I found myself on his side more often than not. John is too whiney and mopey. This throws the story’s comic momentum off completely off the track. Woodcock is right to mock and ridicule John. But since we’re rooting for the ostensible villain and not the hero, how is that funny?
Answer: it’s not. Well, okay, a few things elicit chuckles, but guess what – they’re all featured in the movie’s advertising! Then there’s the lame, tacked-on ending, which is as pointless as it is abrupt. Even after more than a year on the shelf and a bunch of re-shoots with a different director, they still haven’t figured out how to end this thing in any kind of interesting way.
Mr. Woodcock would have been much better if it pitted Thornton against a comedic equal, if it had made Woodcock a genuine creep that we loathed, and if it had gone for edgier R-rated humor. There is one single moment that left me with hope. While trying to convince his mother that Woodcock is a bad man, John says that the teacher “touched” him back in the day. Oh good, I thought, finally some much-needed edginess! But John immediately retracts the statement, and the movie reverts to its relatively tame PG-13 tone. Too bad. This would have been a great comedy had it followed the blueprint of a much darker Billy Bob Thornton movie, Bad Santa. If I could, I’d make this clunker drop and give me twenty push-ups for screwing a great idea up this badly.
( 1/2 out of four)
Mr. Woodcock is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
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