School for Scoundrels

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/29/06 00:35:00

"Todd Phillips Once Again Fails To Make The Grade"
1 stars (Sucks)

If I had to sit down and pick the single funniest thing that I have seen in a movie since becoming a critic, I would probably have to give the title to the centerpiece scene in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, former friends turned bitter rivals after both fall in love with the same woman, engage in a hilarious battle of one-upmanship, one involving wrecked bicycles, cut brake lines and a hotel room filled with bees, scored to the final stanza of The Who’s mini-opera “A Quick One (While He’s Away)”. It is a little masterpiece of comedic filmmaking that works because it is smartly written, perfectly paced–the scene builds with crack timing and precision without a single wasted moment or wrong note–and because the characters have been so finely and fully drawn that we completely understand the reasons why they do what they do. “School for Scoundrels” plays like a feature-length version of that scene with only a few minor adjustments–it is crudely written, even more crudely constructed and features characters so haphazardly developed and relentlessly uninteresting that watching them prattle around is more like an endurance contest than a simple night at the movies.

Jon Heder, Hollywood’s current nerd-du-jour, stars as the nebbishy Roger, a guy whose painful shyness and lack of self-esteem has had a dire effect on virtually every aspect of his life–he is harassed daily in his job as a meter maid by his co-workers as well as the people he tickets, he is drummed out of the Big Brother program when none of the kids want to hang around with him and he finds it much easier to pass out in the presence of beautiful neighbor Amanda (the increasingly ubiquitous Jacinda Barrett) than to actually say “Hello” to her in the hallway. On the advice of a friend, Roger enrolls in a top-secret Learning Annex class on building self-confidence run by the mysterious Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). P’s coursework seems to be like a combination of “Fight Club” and those annoying “Man Law” beer commercials–one lecture begins with the query “How many of you retards own a self-help book?” while the fieldwork includes picking a fight at random with someone and an especially violent round of paintball.

Against all odds, Roger winds up flourishing in the cast–he defeats P’s hulking aide-de-camp (Michael Clarke Duncan) in the paintball game and works up the nerve to take Amanda out on a date. (This leads to one of those scenes in which the guy wins the girl’s heart by freeing all the lobsters from the tank in the seafood restaurant and tossing them back in the drink, as though being tossed in the East River is that much better than being boiled alive and served with risotto.) Unfortunately for Roger, P is the competitive type and has a tendency to go after the top gun in his classes in order to keep his skills honed and to cut the new guy down to size. To that end, P sets his sights on Amanda as well and worms his way into her life by posing as a widowed surgeon. Before long, the two find themselves competing against each other in an effort to win her heart–P utilizes other members of the class to help him disgrace Roger in Amanda’s eyes while Roger recruits a former top gun (Ben Stiller), whose life was destroyed by his battle with P, to help him win her back.

“School For Scoundrels” sounds funny enough, I suppose, but a comedy of this type requires a certain finesse for it to work–the humor needs to grow gradually as the one-upmanship increases and the comedy needs to emerge from the character instead of relying on gross-out gags and silly slapstick. Unfortunately, we are instead left in the hands of Todd Phillips, the auteur of such genteel comedy classics as “Old School” and “Starsky & Hutch.” Whatever qualities those films may have had, they told stories that were little more than laundry lines from which to handle one blackout-style skit after another. Faced with a comedy that require the proper tone for it to succeed, Phillips has instead chosen to approach “School For Scoundrels” as just another one of his knockabout farces and the result is a spectacularly disjointed final effort that never met a male rape joke that it didn’t want to repeat endlessly. Even if the material had been funny (which it isn’t), it would have been done in by a unfathomably clunky style in which scene transitions run the gamut from sloppy to non-existent, character motivations are equally blurry and the big jokes (such as a gag in which some ersatz “cops” make the mistake of firing off their Mace in a tiny elevator) are so badly staged that even the most cinematically-challenged person sitting in the audience could go away for an hour or so and come back with suggestions on how to pep them up.

As the demonic Dr. P, Thornton does get a few laughs here and there from the sheer zeal that he brings to his politically incorrect character at times. That said, there is nothing to Thornton’s performance that hasn’t already been seen in the vastly superior likes of “Bad Santa” or the “Bad News Bears” remake and even he seems to be getting a little bored with coasting through yet another film as yet another foul-mouthed rogue. Likewise, Heder offers up yet another variation of the adorable nerd character that he rode to stardom in “Napoleon Dynamite” without getting a chance to show that he is anything other than a one-trick pony. As the woman who comes between the two of them, Jacinda Barrett is pretty and has a great smile but contributes nothing else to the proceedings. And just to prove that Phillips has no idea of how to make a funny comedy, he brings in two of the funniest people around, David Cross and Sarah Silverman, and gives them one-note supporting parts that fail to exploit their comic gifts. (Now if Phillips had the two of them switch roles with Heder and Barrett, he might have actually been on to something.) Instead, he spends far too much time on the extended late-inning cameo from Ben Stiller, whose stridently unfunny turn essentially does for this film what Will Ferrell did for “Wedding Crashers”–it makes you never want to see Ben Stiller on a movie screen again in your lifetime.

This hasn’t been an exceptionally good year for comedy–for every successful one like “Clerks 2" or “Idiocracy,” there have been two or three dogs such as “Click” or “Nacho Libre,” but even up against those lesser titles, there is a very good chance that “School For Scoundrels” could turn out to be the least funny comedy of the year. This is a film that is so disastrously awful in almost every possible that you don’t watch it as much as just sit there in slack-jawed wonder as it collapses before your eyes. Instead of making films about dopes taking remedial classes in self-actualization, Todd Phillips could spend his time instead taking remedial classes on how to make a competent film comedy–a class where his entire oeuvre will no doubt be used as a sad cautionary example.

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