Thursday, November 20, 2008

School For Scoundrels

Director Todd Phillips teamed up with his co-writer from Old School, Scot Armstrong, to create another offbeat comedy. Phillips and Armstrong took a 1960 comedy by the same name and created a fresh look School For Scoundrels. If you enjoyed Old School, then odds are you will enjoy this one as well. In place of the inane energetic comedy of Jack Black, we get the dry subdued comedy of Jon Heder. Heder is balanced by the consummate bad-funny guy, Billy Bob Thornton. I actually enjoy Thornton more in his comic roles than his serious ones. The two work well together to make School For Scoundrels a success.

School For Scoundrels tells the story of a likable loser, Roger (Jon Heder) who works as a New York City Meter Maid. Roger reaches a new low when he not only agrees to pay the parking fine for a guy whose car is illegally parked, but also pays him for mental anguish and gives the guys buddy his government issued New Balance tennis shoes. Roger requests counseling but ends up getting further embarrassed by his co-workers and superior. Roger finally hits rock bottom when his “Little Brother” requests a new “Big Brother.” Roger receives the name and telephone number of a guy that might be able to help him. In an extremely secretive process, Roger is introduced to Mr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton). Mr. P. is the Bad Santa of self-help gurus. His approach is underhanded and sneaky, but seems to work wonders. When it appears that Roger is excelling, Mr. P. senses competition and begins to sabotage his student. The two end up jousting over Roger’s love interest, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) in a continuing battle of one-upmanship. The stakes are continually raised creating some humorous situations and decent drama that keeps you guessing if the loser will ever get ahead.

Phillips and Armstrong take a fairly simple plot and give it several twists and turns. The misdirection adds a bit of interest to an otherwise predictable storyline. The characters are a ragtag bunch of misfits, but the variety offsets the rather flat dimensions of many of the characters. Amanda is a very flat character that has no personality. She is sweet and lovable and that’s about it. Her character was not credible. Roger was the main character and had more depth than any of the other characters. In fact, his character was about the only one that was thoroughly developed. The rest of the players were flat and a bit predictable. However, the characters were interesting and unique in many ways. The greatest asset found in School For Scoundrels is the situational comedy which was great. The dialogue, wit and humorous visual situations were excellent. What this film lacked in character development it made up for in eccentric characters and funny sketches.

The casting in School For Scoundrels was important. By selecting Thornton to be the hard nose self-help Instructor and Jon Heder to be the loser, School For Scoundrels effectively set up great comic chemistry. Thornton can be larger than life, while Heder has a subtlety to him. The combination of these two strong actors filled the credibility gap created by some of the writing. As a comedy, this movie stretches reality and requires a bit of flatness in the characters. This makes it more important to cast actors that can create the dimension that the writing lacks. Thornton and Heder effectively delivered that dimension. Barrett was tolerable, but could have been played by a hundred different actresses without effectively changing the role. She didn’t really affect the film for better or worse. Sarah Silverman had a much more limited role, but provided some conflict. She was solid. There were many bit parts, most of which were average. However, Luis Guzman stood out as Roger’s Sergeant (Moorehead). His performance provided some decent comedy. Ben Stiller also had a cameo in this film, but his role was more of a distraction than anything else. As a whole, the cast worked because it was built around excellent performances by Thornton and Heder.

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