Todd Phillips, US, 2006, 100 mins
Cast: Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett
Review by Richard Mellor
Much like its hero, a loser-turned-achiever,
School for Scoundrels bumbles around unconvincingly and eventually
just about wins you over with its goofy charm. Neither protagonist
nor film offer any form of ambition or originality, but each
is far enough from banality to merit a grudging acknowledgement.
The signs are good from the start,
such is School for Scoundrels' solid pedigree. In Todd
Phillips, it has a man with the experience of directing
such successful, inoffensive comedies as Road Trip, Starsky & Hutch
and Old School. There's also a big name producer (Harvey
Weinstein) and even Billy Bob Thornton, a bona fide star
more often seen in mainstream dramas.
Also at the top of the bill is Jon
Heder, a man famous in film for precisely one thing – a
terrifically-delivered performance as Napoleon Dynamite
in the eponymous film. Napoleon is similar to his character
here, Roger; both are inelegant, slack-toothed, loners
with a curious fashion sense.
Once Phillips has spent 10 clumsy
minutes establishing Roger's status as a pathetic loser – the most obvious clues
being a job as a New York traffic warden and an inability
to talk to girls – School for Scoundrels suddenly cranks
up the gas. Our hero steps unwittingly into a class designed
to help his kind of bumbling idiot, run by the mysterious
and threatening Dr P (Thornton).
With help from a huge henchman (Michael Clarke Duncan, of
Green Mile fame, terribly wooden here), Dr P uses choice
insults, glimpses of violence and a spot of paintballing
in the woods to instil some self-belief in his 'students'.
The school is the antithesis of Roger's self-help books:
a proactive, kick-in-the-balls-style call to action.
Using his newfound élan, Roger
is able to begin wooing the love of his life, sweetness-personified,
pretty neighbour Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). But Roger's
success infuriates the spoilsport Dr P, cueing some regulatory
Thornton nastiness and a teacher-student fight to the finale.
Amanda is the film's weakest character;
so doe-eyed is she that you begin to question Bambi's integrity.
The part is predictably underwritten and utterly shallow – name
me a well-drawn female character in Phillips' previous comedies
and I'll quote you five good Adam Sandler movies.
Thornton simply goes through the motions as Dr P, offering
up snide humour with autopilot ease as he cruises to a paycheck.
Further down the cast list, Ben Stiller overdoes a one-joke-based
cameo and esteemed character-actor Luis Guzman is underused
as Roger's unconcerned boss.
The film hinges though on the quality of Heder's performance,
and thankfully it is just sufficient. Unlike Napoleon Dynamite,
Roger has no thrilling edge or eclectic verve; but enough
reserves of pluck, energy and occasional arrogance see him
through to favouritism.
And ultimately School for Scoundrels'
currency is neither dramatic depth nor Oscar nominations,
but amiable, harmless gags and enough entertainment to
justify the pricey popcorn. It delivers on both these counts – and
is perhaps even worth a bucket of coke into the bargain…