Fashioned loosely after Stephen Potter’s series of humorous books featuring inventive ways of exacting revenge from culpable offenders, School For Scoundrels invokes similarly themed comedies like Rushmore and Hitch without rising above either of those middling movies. Jon Heder stays in his Napoleon Dynamite goofball stereotype as Roger, an abused New York City meter maid vulnerable to fainting spells in the presence of his longed-for-neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett).
A tip-off from a coworker puts Roger in touch with a private self-esteem course for losers taught by the truly misanthropic Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). Almost as soon as Roger parts with the $5000 for Dr. P’s “Be a lion in life” course, he jumps to the top of the class, ready to give the teacher a run for his money.
A fierce rivalry ignites as Dr. P sets his own romantic sights on Amanda, and Roger is left to fend for himself in a gloves-off battle of oneupsmanship for the girl. Writer/director Todd Phillips (Old School) relies on slapstick to compensate for his script’s anemic narrative and ends up with a flat comedy occasionally punctuated with snaps of absolving vulgarity from Billy Bob Thornton’s colorful delivery.
School For Scoundrels relies on Thornton’s hovering performance to drive the film, and the formula nearly succeeds in the face of Jon Heder’s narrow comic range and inability to develop his character over the course of the story. Thornton has made a cottage industry as the king of cynical attitude for dark comedies. Since slapping audiences around with his savory brand of crude love in Bad Santa, Thornton has sharpened the pitch of his acrid characters in The Ice Harvest and Bad News Bears.
Here, Thornton comes across like a debauched jet set uncle on too much Viagra. He’s not only the lion of the jungle, but he’s also the snake and the gorilla too.
It’s this vitality that Roger feeds on and that enlivens Dr. P’s “Lie, lie, and lie some more” motto when he uses every dirty trick in his arsenal to romantically ensnare Amanda under the excuse of educating Roger in how to rise to the challenge of the dog-eat-dog lesson.
Sarah Silverman steals a couple of key scenes as Amanda’s all-business roommate who has no time for the shenanigans that accompany Roger and Dr. P. It’s a nagging disappointment that the filmmakers didn’t include some comic spark-throwing between Silverman and Thornton whose characters seem primed for comedic conflict. Jacinda Barrett (Poseidon) is woefully miscast as Roger’s romantically ambivalent cute-girl-next-door, if only for her lack of chemical zip with Thornton and Heder.
School for Scoundrels provokes belly laughs during an obligatory paintball battle and a repetitive tennis court gag between Roger and Dr. P as witnessed by Amanda, but the picture remains an average comedy even by Hollywood standards. The laughs just evaporate. MTW