School for Scoundrels
September 28th, 2006
The last three pictures from director Todd Phillips have been comedy gems, so it comes as a shock that the streak ends so harshly with “School for Scoundrels.” Phillips is aiming for a romantic comedy here, but casts Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder in the lead roles; two actors completely incapable of playing either romance or, especially in Heder’s case, comedy.
Roger (Jon Heder) is a pushover New York City meter maid who can’t score at his job or with his attractive neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett, “Ladder 49”). A close friend suggests a self-help class run by the angry Dr. P (a bored Billy Bob Thornton), who teaches lessons about self-esteem to the biggest losers in the city (including Horatio Sanz, Paul Scheer, and Todd Louiso). When the classes pay off in surprising ways, Roger is horrified to learn that Dr. P is making a move on Amanda. Using his newfound talents, Roger decides to fight back, but finds that Dr. P is ready for him with his own bag of tricks.
Perhaps not the purveyor of lasting cinema, writer/director Todd Phillips has held an alarming batting average with his last three comedies; two richly hilarious (“Road Trip”, “Starsky & Hutch”), and one a bona fide classic (“Old School”). Inevitably, every filmmaker wants to break free of routine and try and make a bigger name for themselves with subtle shifts in formula. Unfortunately, it’s that ambition which makes “School for Scoundrels” Phillips’s first film to fail at eliciting any reaction. It’s a dud, and one where the problems stick out like sore thumbs.
To start with: Jon Heder. He’s the worst thing to happen to comedy since the invention of the frown.
Maybe Phillips was pushed into casting Heder because every studio seems to want his Napoleon Dynamite shtick in their comedies. Heder is an abysmal actor; whiffing punchlines, and stumbling through every word of dialog. It’s amateur hour each moment he’s on the screen, and this is the guy who is supposed to anchoring the entire film.
It’s also impossible to believe Heder as any sort of romantic leading role. Half of the blame falls on Phillips, who seems confused how to turn a sadistic comedy (a remake of a 1960 film) into a softer creation that might pass for a date movie if you don’t concentrate on the creepy details. Phillips doesn’t set the mood of attraction between Roger and Amanda in any type of organic way, preferring the sitcom route to get these characters into position. It’s a strikingly lazy piece of writing from Phillips (with partner Scot Armstrong), and it lacks all the crazy, blissful energy that the director conjured up in his earlier productions.
If love can’t be found, surely laughs must come more easily to Phillips; criminally, those are in short supply as well. With the exception of Sarah Silverman, who is always welcome in my book, the rest of the cast doesn’t reach very high for jokes, instead going a winky route that doesn’t take the script anywhere but silence. Phillips scrounges up a couple of interesting physical comedy sequences, but they die because of the lackluster effort, and I’m not thrilled with the director’s newfound passion for groin trauma. Even a cameo by Ben Stiller is oddly lacking gas; the comic looks confused about what he’s supposed to do in his tiny role. Frankly, I have no idea what’s he’s doing here either.
“School for Scoundrels” hurts because it’s from a talented filmmaker who I expected more from, and a director who has demonstrated such casting resourcefulness before. If this is artistic growth, I would’ve preferred a straight up drama from Phillips instead of just a watered down version of what he does so well.
My rating: D+