School for Scoundels (United States, 2006)
School for Scoundrels feels like a wasted opportunity. This is a case of a motion picture failing to unlock the promise of a ripe potential. As black comedies go, this one is too tepid to hit any mark by which a movie is deemed successful. The darkness isn't the problem. If anything, the movie isn't dark enough. Director Todd Phillips lacks the strength of conviction to take the production down a path that veers too far away from the mainstream crowd-pleasing road. Plus, the one-upsmanship forming the backbone of the story isn't all that clever and the jokes lack punch. Taken in concert, these things result in a forgettable motion picture.
School for Scoundrels introduces us to Roger (Jon Heder), a guy who's so low in the self-esteem department that he doesn't even attain the level of "loser." He's rejected as a Big Brother and, while working at his job of handing out parking tickets, he agrees to pay a fine to placate an irate driver. He has a crush on his next-door neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), but is too intimidated by being around her to muster the courage to ask her out on a date - and the presence of her sharp-tongued roommate (Sarah Silverman) makes things worse. That's why, when given the opportunity, Roger elects to join a class that promises to remake his personality in the image of a lion.
The class is run by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his faithful sidekick, Lescher (Michael Clarke Duncan). Dr. P's methods include incessant verbal assaults and occasional physical pain. His lessons include valuable chestnuts like "Never compliment a woman" and "Lie, lie, and lie some more." For $5000 per student, he attempts to replace meekness with callousness. His teachings give Roger the courage to ask out Amanda, but then something unexpected happens. Dr. P takes an interest in her, and Roger finds himself in a battle with the Master Bastard to win the heart of a woman. The gloves come off and things get dirtier than a political campaign.
School for Scoundrels is loosely based on a 1960 Ealing comedy (which I have not seen) that was, in turn, based on the novel School for Scoundrels or How to Win without Actually Cheating! by Stephen Potter. Phillips, fresh off commercial success with Old School and Starsky and Hutch, tries to mix the more sophisticated wit of the subject matter with the adolescent-friendly approach he used in his previous movies. The result is unpleasant and generates surprisingly few laughs.
The spine of the movie is the one-upsmanship between Roger and Dr. P. Roger does something nasty to Dr. P (like humiliating him on a tennis court) and Dr. P responds (by staging a break-in and blaming it on Roger). This escalates until the stakes are life-and-death. The problem is, there's not a lot of cleverness in this dual. For examples of this sort of thing done right, consider the classic film Sleuth or the more recent French romantic comedy Love Me if You Dare. Both of those movies (and there are other titles as well) do interesting things with the premise; School for Scoundrels does not.
Ever since Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton has been typecast in this kind of role, and there's a reason - he does it so well. School for Scoundrels is no exception. Jon Heder, unfortunately, is not well selected. He lacks the personality to hold the screen with Thornton. That's okay when he's playing a loser, but it hurts the movie during the scenes when Roger is supposed to have developed enough of a backbone to face off against Dr. P. And he and his female co-star, Jacinda Barrett (who can also be seen in The Last Kiss), inhabit a void where no spark can be ignited.
Black comedies are difficult to do well, and the flaw evident in School for Scoundrels is a common reason they fail: the movie is unwilling to turn really dark. It wants a happy ending. It wants to wallow in soot and ashes for a while but, in the end, the good guys and bad guys get what's coming to them. For the most part, School for Scoundrels is a grim experience, with too little wit and humor to compensate for its faults, and the upbeat ending feels like a cheat. Thornton is good, but not worth the price of a ticket.
School for Scoundels (United States, 2006)
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sarah Sliverman, Luis Guzman, Todd Luiso, Horatio Sanz, Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong, based on the novel by Stephen Potter
Cinematography: Jonathan Brown
Music: Christophe Bec
U.S. Distributor: MGM