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Class Conflict 

Two recent movies that appealed to the low-rent side of my cinematic taste were Terry Zwigoff's hilariously dyspeptic Bad Santa and Richard Linklater's sneakily inspirational School of Rock. Hence my hope for Todd Phillips' School For Scoundrels. Like Bad Santa, the new film stars Billy Bob Thornton, a player I've enjoyed in most everything he's done. And like School of Rock, its story involves a loser trying to make good. But as I should have learned long since: beware of what you look forward to. In the movie world, at least, anticipation results in disappointment more often than satisfaction.

Written by Phillips with Scot Armstrong, School For Scoundrels is the story of Roger Waddell (Jon Heder), a parking meter man on the fast track to oblivion. In an organization not exactly known for its tough guys, Roger is still the standout wimp, a target for ridicule by all his fellow ticket writers. On the street, Roger is a storky dork in his short pants and knobby helmet, riding around in his box-on-wheels meter mobile. He's the kind of spineless young man who offers to give angry motorists money from his own pocket to pay the parking tickets he writes them. One day he encounters trouble over a citation and returns to the office in just his underwear, a couple of recidivist parkers having relieved him of his money, his badge and his uniform.

Roger doesn't want to be such a pantywaist, but he just can't help himself. And because he can't, he's an excruciating failure when it comes to romance. He's got a crush on a graduate student named Amanda Richards (Jacinda Barrett, the Aussie beauty who is Zach Braff's pregnant girlfriend in The Last Kiss). But Roger can barely bring himself to talk to her, and when he actually summons the courage to do so one day, he faints from a panic attack before he can manage to ask her out. Roger is a decent young man, but he's so bland and indecisive he can't even succeed at charity work. He's joined Big Brothers, but all his Little Brothers keep trading him in for anyone with the prospect of gumption.

Into this cringing world comes the idea for how to acquire a backbone. Dennis "Dr.P." Sherman (Thornton) specializes in teaching weak men to be strong and only charges $5,000 for the instruction. Roger thinks if he takes Dr. P.'s class, he might someday get a date with Amanda. What follows is Roger's excursion into the wilds of assertive manhood. Dr. P. requires his charges to engage in a paintball war where they are directed to be loyal to no one. Groaning visual crotch jokes ensue, but it's not clear what anyone is supposed to learn from the exercise. Every student is issued a pager and receives spur-of-the-moment commands to initiate a confrontation. This exercise is perhaps designed to teach the students that they can endure more hostility than they imagine, but it primarily produces another round of sight gags such as a nurse abruptly smearing his bed-ridden patient with Jello.

Then, suddenly, the picture swerves onto an altogether different narrative path. Dr. P. spies Roger on a date with Amanda and decides to woo the girl for himself. Is this part of Dr. P.'s confidence building instruction? Or is he running a confidence game in which part of the loot is another's guy's girl. The picture does an adequate job of keeping you guessing about Dr. P.'s objectives until the closing credits.

One can understand easily enough how director Phillips and his producers got this project greenlighted. Heder had a sleeper hit with Napoleon Dynamite. He's tall and perfectly good looking, but with his chipmunkish upper lip, mop of shaggy hair and adenoidal voice, he does hopeless schmuck very well. Thornton, meanwhile, has become a Hollywood staple, an actor with several score film credits in a variety of roles. He's played a U.S. president, a football coach and an astronaut, but if he has a special gift, it's as a low-life resigned to inevitable injustice and devoted to immediate gratification. After Bad Santa, I will never look at a department store St. Nick the same way again. How easy then to promote the idea of a collision between Heder's skills as a hapless guppy and Thornton's calling as a voracious shark.

Alas, there is much planting and pruning between promising concept and successful script, and School For Scoundrels suffers crop failure the way so many Hollywood comedies do. The good idea tree yields too little successful story fruit. Even the title makes no sense. Dr. P. doesn't run a school for scoundrels. He runs a school for dweebs. And unfortunately, his running of it produces way too little in the way of comedy. School For Scoundrels isn't a painful moviegoing experience, but it is one that's almost utterly forgettable.

click to enlarge Roger (Jon Heder) is overmatched by Dr. P. (Billy Bob - Thornton) in his quest to win over Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). - 2006 MGM
  • 2006 MGM
  • Roger (Jon Heder) is overmatched by Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton) in his quest to win over Amanda (Jacinda Barrett).
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