School for Scoundrels
It’s nerds vs. cads in a so-so comedy about love and war
School for Scoundrels
Directed by Todd Phillips
Cast: Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett, Sarah Silverman
Stephen Potter was a British humorist who penned a series of mock “self help” books in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Potter’s books on Gamesmanship, Lifemanship and Oneupmanship purported to teach “ploys” for manipulating one’s associates, making them feel inferior and generally gaining the status of being “one-up” on them. In 1960, a comedy called School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! was filmed in England with actors Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas and Janet Scott. It was loosely based on Potter’s roguish philosophies, transferring them--quite logically--to the area of amour.
Of course, none of this will make the slightest difference for people going to see the newly released School for Scoundrels, most of whom have purchased a ticket in order to see Napoleon Dynamite get shot in the crotch with a paintball gun.
School for Scoundrels, written and directed by Old School helmer Todd Phillips, uses the same basic framework as the 1960 film. Jon Heder (yes, the kid who starred in Napoleon Dynamite) is Roger, a shy, introverted, entirely grooveless dude working as a lowly meter maid in New York City. In addition to his emasculating job, poor fashion sense and total lack of self-esteem, Roger is completely incapable of communicating with the opposite sex. And that goes double when it comes to the cute Australian chick living down the hall from him.
At the end of his professional, personal and romantic rope, Roger is directed toward a top-secret adult education class run by the mysterious “Dr. P” (Billy Bob Thornton). Dr. P isn’t here to provide self-esteem or inspiring life lessons for his students. He’s here to teach them how to be “lions.” Women are prey, other men are enemies and the only way to get what you want in life is to take it. Thus begins a series of “tough love” (minus the love) lessons imparted by the callous Dr. P. This involves inciting conflict with random strangers, copious amounts of lying and a general “fake it till you make it” attitude.
Initial scenes, in which the devious Dr. P helps our nerdy hero and his fellow misfits (High Fidelity’s Todd Louiso and Horatio Sanz from “SNL” among them) unleash their inner cad, are amusing. The laughs aren’t as big or as frequent as they are in Old School, but there are moments. (The aforementioned paintball fight being the most likely to inspire out-loud laughter.)
After spending roughly half its time as a bad-attitude version of Hitch, the film shifts gears, borrowing its second-half inspiration from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Here, the romantically reformed Roger finds himself competing in a battle of wits against the underhanded Dr. P, who has taken a shine to the object of Roger’s affections (Jacinda Barrett from The Last Kiss). Lots of lying, cheating and slapstick backstabbing ensue.
The cast is more or less engaging. As he did in Napoleon Dynamite, The Benchwarmers and even the animated Monster House, Jon Heder plays a dorky loser. There are those who would accuse Heder of typecasting himself. But, honestly, what else is he gonna do? Is he suddenly going to start challenging Brad Pitt for the hunky action hero roles? With those teeth? I think not. Thornton seems to be having some fun playing a nasty cad and treating his role as seriously as a heart attack. Jacinda Barrett is cute, but she isn’t given enough of a character for viewers to really concern themselves over who ends up with her.
Though the cast tries its best to sell the humor, the script’s formulaic romantic comedy aspects end up bogging the film down in the second half. Will our heroine eventually realize she’s being manipulated by a total sleazeball? Will our hero tell his ladylove the Real Honest Truth? Will he make it to the church/talent contest/birthday party/airport before it’s too late? The frantic wrap-up, as contractually required by the RomCom genre, features a lot of really contrived occurrences culminating in a big, silly public showdown. ... If only Dr. P had run a tough love School for Screenwriters.