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Dirty, rotten Scoundrels

by Glen Baity

School has changed a lot since I was a kid. It has been rocked. It has grown old. And now it nurtures and educates scoundrels.

At least, scoundrels in the making. Among the many things wrong with director Todd Phillips’ latest film is that it’s arguably misnamed. Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) teaches a class for men who let people walk all over them. That’s not school for scoundrels, from where I sit – it’s school for wimps.

Sadly, that’s the least of the problems contained in this lackluster comedy, a dull frat-pack footnote that offers viewers little more than the obligatory Ben Stiller cameo (is there a role this man won’t take?).

Stumbling into the titular academy is Roger (John Heder), a New York City parking cop with an apartment full of self-help books, a schoolboy crush on his neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) and a tendency to pass out at the first sign of stress. Roger, a nice enough guy, is a doormat for pretty much everyone. All the more surprise, then, that he begins excelling under Dr. P’s tutelage.

Of course, Dr. P’s course is little more than a six-week tutorial in How to Be a Morally Bankrupt Ladies’ Man. He dispenses advice like ‘Be dangerous; it’s cool,’ and ‘No compliments, ever!’ that his simpering students lap up as gospel. Roger in particular becomes slightly less dorky, but this is Napoleon Dynamite, and dorky is kind of his thing, so the difference is practically undetectable.

The real marker of his progress is that he gains the ability to talk to Amanda without having an anxiety attack, which is, I suppose, a laudable step in the right direction for a man in his late twenties.

Dr. P, deciding that Roger is advancing too quickly for his own good, ultimately decides to bring his young squire down a peg by aggressively courting Amanda.

The fact that (spoiler alert!) mop-topped Roger will end up with the girl over the older, smarter, better-looking Dr. P is never really in doubt, but it’s a conceit School for Scoundrels isn’t charming enough to make believable. Really, it’s obvious who would win that match-up in real life (Sling Blade KO’s Dynamite in the first round, easy).

A few months ago I reserved judgment on Heder when he co-starred in The Benchwarmers At the time I thought he might do okay if separated from the other two points of comedy’s own Bermuda Triangle, commonly known as David Spade and Rob Schneider.

But here, crossing swords with Thornton for an hour and a half, Heder’s shortcomings as a comic actor are laid bare. Forget for a moment that his delivery always suggests he’s one ‘gosh’ away from slipping back into his star-making role. His performance in School for Scoundrels is patently uninteresting, a familiar mix of his trademark gangly movements and mouth-breathing dimwittedness. Thornton at his best is one of my favorite actors, but at his worst, he’d still be slumming in a film like this. Heder, for his part, seems bent on cornering the market as Hollywood’s most reliable doofus. Whether that’s due to an inability to stretch as an actor, or because he genuinely feels he’s good at it, I can’t say (though if it’s the latter, he’s sorely mistaken).

In fairness, Heder isn’t helped by the fact that a great many of the film’s jokes fall flat on their own. Thornton, who can spin straw into gold more efficiently than any of his contemporaries, gets a handful of good lines, making up the difference with his excellent deadpan sneer. Michael Clarke Duncan does well as Dr. P’s right-hand man, and Barrett obviously does what she’s asked to do, which unfortunately isn’t much more than to smile and be pretty.

The rest of the cast struggles with mostly lame material provided by Phillips and co-writer Scot Armstrong, including that perennial favorite, the recurring rape joke.

Phillips has made several films in the Revenge of the Nerds tradition (this latest, naturally, comes from the “Picked Last” production company), reaching a high point a few years back with Old School. School for Scoundrels is closer to his work in Road Trip, another mainly bad but occasionally amusing piece of pure fluff. If this latest institution of learning is any indication, perhaps it’s time he stopped opening magnet schools for social misfits.

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