October 4, 2006

Movie Review: School for Scoundrels

Once again, the big screen is faced with the scourge of the remake. Just when you thought that the multiplex was going to be remake free..... Ah, who am I kidding, we are never far away from the next dosing of Hollywood meddling. Instead of taking the formula and tweaking it a little, they just go and take what has already been done and try to duplicate it. At least, like in this case, they went with a film that I am sure most of us, me included, are not familiar with. When they take this route, they at least have a chance of slipping it past the goalie as a supposedly "original" movie. Not all of them are bad, some are good, some surpass the originals, and some just are.

School for Scoundrels is a new take on 1960 British film of the same name. I have not seen that film, so I cannot compare the two, but at least I knew there was another film, right? As for this one, it plays to the middle way too often. It could have been a masterful dark comedy, but it is nowhere near dark enough. It could have been a fun slapstick comedy, but there isn't enough slapstick. It could have even been a decent romantic comedy, but it does not have enough romance. For that matter, there isn't enough comedy. Too bad, it has all of the elements for success, it just drops the ball before getting back to the line of scrimmage.

Roger (Jon Heder) is a loser. He lives in a small apartment, suffers from panic attacks, has no self esteem, and passes out whenever he tries to talk to the pretty neighbor girl, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). One day, a friend (David Cross) gives him a phone number, and tells him to call it or burn it. He calls it. He is thrust into a secret class populated by losers, like himself. Heading up the class is Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), and his imposing assistant Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan).

The class forces these guys to challenge themselves, and Dr. P is there to push them to the limits, to take these collection of losers and turn them into people who take what the want. It is more than a class in self confidence, it is there to be a life altering event. Roger takes to the class well, but before he can take his new skills and fully implement them, he finds competition for Amanda's affections in none other than Dr. P. Roger throws down the gauntlet, and the war is on. The question is, is this relationship more than meets the eye?

The answer, obviously, is "of course there is." If it was just what was on the surface, there wouldn't be a movie. Sadly, it doesn't really dig all that deep and never really gets into these characters. It is like they just made a quick sketch of the outline and filled in the blanks, Madlib style, to get from point A to point B.

I went in really hoping to like this movie. I like the idea, the concept is fun, and some of the characters had the beginnings of something great. You have Jon Heder, who proved himself to be a very good loser with the surprise hit Napoleon Dynamite, unfortunately he played Napoleon Dynamite. He has become so closely associated with that character, that is all I see here. Billy Bob Thornton has a the problem of acting more than the part. Not that he is bad, quite the opposite, but the character isn't written strong enough for his performance. The rest of the cast fill their roles, but do not make much of an impact.

School for Scoundrels had the tools for success, but something got fumbled along the way. I think the majority of the fault lies with the screenplay by Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips (who also directed). It just fails to have any real bite. Sure, it has some funny moments, but it floats along without much to say. I would have liked to see what Terry Zwigoff could have done with it. I mention that because of the bite that his Bad Santa had, with Billy Bob Thornton. Also, it struck me very much like Zwigoff's Art School Confidential, another movie that was decent, but lacked any real bite, something that it could have had and seemed to aspire to.

Bottomline. Moderately entertaining comedy that could have been so much more. Heder and Thornton do well enough with what they have, but it all falls apart the closer to the end we get. Mediocre at best, this would best be served at the second run theaters, or a rental.

Mildly Recommended.
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