Billy Bob Thornton Tells Guys How To Grow From Boys To Pricks
School For Scoundrels is a fun house mirror image of Fight Club contorted into a broad comedy. Billy Bob Thornton plays Dr. P, a mysterious figure who gets the shyest, most emasculated men he can find to pay top dollar for a course in which he teaches them how to live an assertive, successful life at the cost of their kind and timid nature. While there’s no grand plan for revolution at work, Dr. P is very serious about beating the repressed politeness out of each and every one of his students until they’re alpha males. Even his methods, which include ordering his pupils to initiate physical confrontations with strangers, echo those of Tyler Durden. In this case, though, they have to pick fights with whoever is around when their assigned beeper goes off, which results in a variety of entertaining altercations with co-workers, street toughs, and the elderly.
Along with his usual deadpan comedic talents, Thornton imbues Dr. P with a certain menacing swagger as he throws these overgrown boys into absurd situations in which they’re forced to become mean, deceitful, and at the same time more attractive to the opposite sex. Although his assistant, the hulking Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan, relishing every minute of screen time), is the muscle behind the operation, it’s Dr. P’s head games and verbal abuse that slowly shape his students into confident, likable assholes just like him.
The student through whose eyes we meet Dr. P is Roger (Jon Heder), a sullen meter maid whose self-esteem issues are worsened by his job, a line of work in which no one is ever happy to see him. Heder, whose buck teeth and weak chin ensure a lifetime of roles as pitiful dweebs, plays Roger as more of a lovable loser than the kind of slack-jawed dullard he’s been relegated to since his breakout role in the insufferable Napoleon Dynamite. He’s not a loser, Dr. P insists, because--not to boost Roger’s confidence--"a loser is someone who tries and fails." Roger and others like him never even get up the nerve to try.
Roger gets off to a rocky start in overcoming his anxieties, when he faints during an attempt to ask out his cute Australian neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett from The Real World London, surely the envy of every reality show alumni who expected to springboard into feature films). But once he wins her over, Roger races to the head of the class and Dr. P decides to steal Roger’s girl, either as the class’s final challenge or because he’s simply so competitive that he feels the need to destroy any student who gets too good too fast.
Based loosely on the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!, which in turn was based on Brit humorist Stephen Potter’s satirical self-help books, the new School continues director Todd Phillips’ stretch of solid if unexceptional comedies that includes Old School and Road Trip. The brisk first half gets by largely on the comedic friction among Roger and his classmates, especially Diego (Horatio Sanz) and Eli (Todd Louiso), being terrorized by Lesher. Louiso, who already raised timidity to an art form as Dick in High Fidelity, is a kick to watch as he transforms into the kind of guy who can score a threesome by convincing girls that he’s Moby. Celebrating his breakthrough at a karaoke bar, Louiso renders Alice Cooper’s "No More Mr. Nice Guy" as an almost poignant statement of reawakening.
But after Dr. P steals Amanda out from under Roger, the remainder of the movie becomes less of an ensemble piece than a tedious back-and-forth of revenge and one-upmanship between the two leads that feels borrowed from both Rushmore and Anger Management. Big-budget comedies these days always seem to shoehorn in as many cameos as possible, and in School’s case, David Cross and Sarah Silverman show up early on and are integrated into the plot gracefully enough, but once the second half starts to drag, the appearance of Ben Stiller as one of Dr. P’s crazed ex-students only pulls it deeper into a rut of increasingly absurd scenarios. With 15 minutes and a handful of plot complications shorn off, School for Scoundrels could have been one tight little comedy, but by taking its premise a little too far, it falls short.