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Nothing Worth Learning in “School for Scoundrels”

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 2 Feb
  • COMMENTS
Nothing Worth Learning in “School for Scoundrels”

DVD Release Date:  February 13, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  September 29, 2006
Rating:  PG-13 (for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence)
Genre:  Comedy/Remake
Run Time: 101 min.
Director:  Todd Phillips
Actors:  Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clark Duncan, Matt Walsh, Todd Louiso, Horatio Sanz, David Cross, Sarah Silverman

Poor Roger (Jon Heder).  He’s tried every self-help book out there, but he still can’t seem to find enough gumption to stick up for himself – or stop fainting, whenever he even looks at his adorable neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett).  As a meter maid, Roger is constantly trying to placate irate customers, even paying their tickets for them.  Which sadly, does not stop Roger from getting beaten up every now and then.

Even Roger’s assigned “little Brother” doesn’t like him, and asks for a switch (which makes Roger cry).  So when a friend furtively suggests that Roger attend a class for losers, he’s got nothing to, well, lose.  Except the $5,000 tuition, of course, which must be brought in cash.  Things get weirder still when Roger meets the “professor,” one Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton), an autocratic drill sergeant with a sexually ambiguous assistant named Lescher (Michael Clark Duncan).

Together, the men make the class – which includes Walsh (Matt Walsh), Diego (Horatio Sanz) and Eli (Todd Louiso) – go on a hardcore paintball retreat and “initiate conflict” with unsuspecting strangers, sometimes with violent results.  Unfortunately, Roger soon learns that Dr. P. also has a tradition of singling out the most successful student in his group for special treatment.  So when Roger starts to excel, growing confident enough to date and even kiss Amanda, Dr. P. goes after Amanda for himself.  That’s when things start to unravel, and Roger learns that he has more than enough confidence to go around.

With a screenplay written by Scot Armstrong and director Todd Phillips, “School for Scoundrels” is based on a novel by Stephen Potter ("School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!") and a 1960 screenplay by Hal Chester and Patricia Moyers.  Unfortunately, however, the adaptation doesn’t work.  What should have been either dark or funny simply comes across as horrendously cruel.

Take, for example, a running rape joke that begins on the retreat, with Lescher forcing Roger’s three sidekicks to strip to their underwear and bend over a log.  Roger intervenes, but not, apparently, before the men are raped, which is referenced only later, then joked about, again and again.  That’s supposed to be funny?  Consider also Dr.  P.’s instructions to “initiate conflict,” without giving any verbal or physical skills to do so – much less teaching about how and with whom they should do so.  As a result, while Roger stands up to a workplace bully, and a classmate attacks a random female busker in the park.

Then there’s the school’s teaching, which is founded on a set of devious rules entitled “From the Bar to Your Bed.”  For example:

  • Friends are just obstacles that stand between you and success.”
  • “Be dangerous.  It’s cool.”
  • “No compliments.  Ever.” and
  • “Lie, lie and lie some more.”

Lovely.  And so representative of the man we’d all like to date and marry.  Ah, but there’s the rub.  Dr. P. also teaches his students that marriage is for losers.  They need to play the field, you see.  Forever.

The message, clearly, is that nice guys don’t just finish last – they don’t finish at all. Sure, you can take things too far, as illustrated by Thornton’s behavior in the end, but overall, this film is trying to tell us that real men grab life by the b***s, doing whatever it takes to succeed.  It’s humanistic at best, evil at worst.  Not the sort of thing I want pumping passively into my brain, to be sure.

Compounding this problem is the casting, which is woefully off.  You would think that anything Heder does would be good, after his stellar performance in “Napoleon Dynamite.”  But unfortunately, he tends to be very one-note here – with little transformation from beginning to end.  They could have at least cut his hair, too, which might have prevented me from staring at his teeth so much.  And speaking of staring, what in the name of Hollywood has happened to Billy-Bob Thornton?  Talk about plastic surgery gone awry.  The guy looks like the lovechild of Kim Jong-il and Bernie Mac.  Forget “Bad Santa.” He’s not funny here at all.

A miscast Duncan comes across as a stock cliché.  Barrett’s role is drawn too sparsely for anything but sweet adoration.  The only standout is Sarah Silverman, a comedienne who delivers constant zingers with flinching flair.  Not that I’d want to be her friend, of course.  And finally, let’s not forget my good friend Ben Stiller, who is apparently required by law to appear in all of Phillip’s films, as well as about 16 others every year.  Here, he does so in a long, stringy black wig.  Hilarious!  Not.

The DVDs extras are minimal, and the featurette is one big joke, with actors talking nonsense throughout.  Too bad Phillips didn’t go with his alternate ending, which would have marginally improved the film and closed on a more traditional note, instead of the slapstick, "Saturday Night Live" type of skit we’re left with.  Which, come to think of it, pretty much describes the entire film.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Alternate Ending: the one they should have used
  • Gag Reel: not funny at all
  • The Making-Of You Didn’t See on TV: full of crude, farcical and largely useless information
  • Feature Commentary with Director and Writer
  • Theatrical Trailer

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Several scenes in bar where people drink; other social drinking.
  • Language/Profanity:  Numerous obscenities and profanities, some strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  An implied rape of several men, with repeated references to same; man has an affair, including planned trip out of town with mistress; various flirtations and kisses.
  • Violence:  Lots of verbal abuse, military style; on a men’s retreat, men chase one another, point paintball guns, shoot and take hostages; man slaps another man; men pretend to be police officers and handcuff an innocent man, then spray mace in his face; ongoing reference to men being raped and subsequent cover-up; threat of death with electrical shock paddles; man is slapped several times; man falls several times.