"School for Scoundrels" flunks the test

Oct. 5, 2006, midnight | By Molly Reed | 17 years, 4 months ago

Comedy starts out strong but doesn't make the grade

What do you get when you take all the geekiness out of Napoleon Dynamite? You get a dull, uninteresting character that fails to make even preteen girls giggle and swoon because of his odd protruding teeth and squinty eyes. You get a movie that lacks humor while being as romantic as a blind date with Michael Jackson. You get, quite simply, "School for Scoundrels."

The movie has a promising premise that should have been able to deliver more laughs than it actually forces out of its audience. The film follows Roger Waddell (Jon Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite"), a confidence-lacking parking meter attendant not even worthy of the title "loser." After being dumped by his third little brother in the Big Brother, Big Sister program, he joins a confidence-building class run by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his large, scary assistant Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan).

Of course, Roger's motive for the change is a girl, an entrancing Aussie named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) who lives in the apartment next-door. He eventually works up the courage to ask her on a date, during which he reads advice from notes cards saying "Lie, lie and lie some more" and "Women love dangerous men." Taking this last truth to heart, Roger manages to win over the eco-friendly Amanda by stealing an aquarium-full of lobsters from a restaurant and releasing them into a river. However, Dr. P soon moves in and starts flirting with Amanda, initiating a series of ridiculous set-ups and full-on fights between Roger and his teacher.

The idea is funny enough, but once Roger is transformed from a fainting, panic attack-stricken loser into a confident macho-man, he loses his magic and charm. Roger's sudden turn of character is unbelievable, as if Rosie O'Donnell suddenly became a model for magazine covers. What's more, the constant backstabbing and cold-hearted deceit between Roger and Dr. P isn't original; it's unnecessary and dirtier than if they had been mud wrestling. Dragging the movie even lower is its saccharine ending, which inspires teary eyes due to its absurdity, not its heart-fluttering sweetness.

Despite its flawed second half, the opening of the movie does have some truly funny, redeeming scenes that make the movie watchable. The students in the school, many of whom are balding and overweight, include a man who gets abused by his wife and another who lives in his mother's basement. Though clich"d, these side characters are at least entertaining. One of the best lines of the movie comes during the first class as Dr. P denounces the self-help books his students faithfully read, saying, "You can't help yourself because your self sucks."

Another funny concept is the beepers that Dr. P gives to each student. Whenever their beepers go off, the students must release their inner "lions" and start confrontations, resulting in a few moments of laugh-out-loud laughter. Roger steals a coworker's cherry Danish from the microwave, while other students break a windshield with a bat, destroy the violin of a woman playing on the sidewalk and smash Jell-O into an old man's face at a hospital. However, as these men gain confidence, the movie is less about the class and more about Roger's competition with Dr. P, which really tries too hard to earn laughs.

Although Billy Bob Thornton, usually known for his tough, gritty roles (not to mention his marriage to Angelina Jolie), played his role as a cruel, heartless teacher well, he was unable to make the film any easier to digest. Jon Heder, of course, was the perfect nerd, but is unable to shed this reputation even as his character gains self-confidence, making his new-and-improved self seem unbelievable. There is no spark as Heder portrays a numbingly cold romance with Barrett, and his failed acting attempts resemble a fluttering match in the midst of a downpour.

"School for Scoundrels" had promise, but was ruined because director Todd Phillips was too soft and allowed Roger to remain a miserable nerd. Phillip's pitying remodeling of the main character instead leaves moviegoers confused and dissatisfied. In fact, the ending of the movie is much like the main character himself. At the beginning of the movie, when Roger gets close to Amanda, his one desire, he faints; when "School for Scoundrels" gets close to becoming a truly humorous, worthwhile film, it collapses into a mess.

"School for Scoundrels" (100 minutes, area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content and some violence.

Molly Reed. Molly is a conspiracy theorist who thinks the world is flat, the president is a robot, and "french" is a made-up language, created on a whim by her teacher. She lives in the middle of nowhere and enjoys raising barns, growing turnips and feeding her … More »

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