Loosely based on a 1960 British film with the same name, School of Scoundrels takes a promising idea and turns it into a jumbled, one-dimensional comedy that occasionally finds laughs but mostly bores the audience and embarrasses its cast, particularly the talented Billy Bob Thornton.
Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Roger, an awkward and insecure meter "maid" plagued by low self-esteem. Determined to turn his life around, he enrolls in a secret confidence-building course taught by the slick and ruthless Dr. P (Thornton). Assisted by Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), Dr. P indulges in deceit, humiliation, and physical and verbal abuse to transform his class of wimps into real men. Women are conquests, colleagues are road kill, and merciless dishonesty is a man's most valuable tool.
Predictably, nice guy Roger applies what he's learned to make his way to the head of the class, and ask out the pretty Australian girl Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). Unfortunately, Dr. P regards Roger as direct competition and launches a campaign of personal and professional destruction against his star pupil.
There's a real opportunity here for the film to eviscerate modern notions of masculinity, courtship and romance. One can imagine the comic potential in watching lamblike men unleash their inner lions on unsuspecting friends and family. Unfortunately, even with a cast that includes David Cross, Luis Guzman, Sarah Silverman and Ben Stiller, School for Scoundrels gets almost everything wrong.
Director Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip) made the first mistake in casting Heder as the leading man. His deadpan brilliance in Napoleon Dynamite aside, Heder displays an astonishingly small range as an actor. However, Todd Louiso (High Fidelity), who plays a fellow classmate, illustrates how an accomplished comedic actor can turn a sad, shy loser into something funny and sympathetic. If Phillips had any sense, he would have cast Louiso as the lead.
While never awful, Thornton samples from several of his recent films (notably Bad Santa and Bad News Bears) to patch together a passionless and inconsistent performance.
Ultimately, Phillips and co-screenwriter Scot Armstrong (Starksy & Hutch) can't seem to decide who or what is the target of their humor. Is Roger timid and uncertain or just plain stupid? Is Dr. P a truth-telling bastard or a dastardly villain? The characters repeatedly swap traits throughout the film; the execution and style feels like a first-time effort from amateurs, not the product of a pair of filmmakers who've seen big success at the box office.
There are some small delights: Louiso is the standout, delivering some of the film's best jokes with understated panache. Silverman as a bitchy neighbor less a character and more a series of nasty one-liners is equally entertaining. There are a few decent sight gags and though Heder blows his character, he lands a few good laughs with physical comedy. But for a $20 million movie (and a $10 ticket), you should be getting much more.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.