School for Scoundrels is to the art of film what processed cheese food is to fine dining. It takes some standard ingredients, mixes them and comes up with a product that bears a vague resemblance to a movie. Rather than create anything new — and I’m not talking about the fact that this is (barely) a remake of a 1960 British movie — director-co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School) has cobbled together a plodding farce entirely predicated on having his stars regurgitate the things they’re best known for. As a result, we’re given Billy Bob Thornton in full smart-ass cynical mode (or as full as a PG-13 rating will allow) and Jon Heder in his Napoleon Dynamite hapless mouth-breather persona.
We also get Phillips’ trademark flat direction and apparent inability to pace a film. School for Scoundrels doesn’t move, it merely lurches from one improbable event to the next — with an occasional time-out for ill-advised and amazingly boring scenes that are presumably meant to pass for character development.
Heder plays Roger, a nebbishy guy who works as a meter maid in New York City. His life is a disaster. He lives in constant fear of everyone, can barely perform his job, has never had a girlfriend and can’t even cut it as a volunteer for Big Brothers. Despite an entire library’s worth of self-help tomes, Roger lives only to be humiliated — mostly by people in dire need of finding anyone they can feel superior to. Help arrives in the guise of Dr. P (Thornton) and his super secret class in self-assertion (how it can be secret and yet be housed in a center for adult studies is never addressed). For a mere $5,000 (how Roger has a spare five grand or manages to have a roomy apartment in a fairly upscale building on his salary in New York City is also never addressed), Dr. P promises to teach his students to unleash their inner lions.
As a premise, this isn’t bad, but it’s so poorly and unpersuasively developed that it constantly falls flat. The students’ early attempts at self-assertion are both unfunny (do we really want to see Heder plunged face-first into a toilet … maybe that’s a bad example) and unbelievable (how many people would continue with such a class?). When success comes for Roger, things only get that much worse, because Heder is never even briefly believable in that characterization — and worse, whatever limited charm he possesses goes out the window when he’s stripped of his standard schtick.
The film’s ostensible dramatic tension comes when Dr. P opts to romance the girl of Roger’s dreams, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett, The Last Kiss), when Roger finally finds the courage to ask her out on a date. Dr. P isn’t all that interested in her, he’s mostly out to punish Roger for being the star pupil. (No, it doesn’t make much sense.) A few of the scenes in their battle for her favors are mildly amusing, but never more than that.
The story’s constant attempts at surprising the viewer are neither surprising, nor remotely believable. When Dr. P has Amanda’s apartment trashed and frames Roger for the vandalism, why doesn’t she press charges (especially after Dr. P’s bogus cops paint Roger as a dangerous psycho who will certainly murder her)? Who pays for the damages? Why does Roger engage in an elaborate scheme to thwart Dr. P’s plans to seduce and abandon Amanda when all he needs to do is hand her the dirt he’s dug up on his nemesis (an action that would also save her from the proverbial “fate worse than death”)? As is often the case in bad movies, the story only works if the characters take the stupidest path imaginable. In the case of the viewer, that path would be to the box office to buy a ticket. Rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke