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SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS (director/writer: Todd Phillips; screenwriter: Scot Armstrong; cinematographer: Jonathan Brown; editors: Leslie Jones/Daniel Schalk; music: Christophe Beck; cast: Billy Bob Thornton (Dr. P.), Jon Heder (Roger), Jacinda Barrett (Amanda), Michael Clarke Duncan (Lesher), Matt Walsh (Walsh), Todd Louiso (Eli), Horatio Sanz (Diego), Paul Scheer (Little Pete), Sarah Silverman (Becky), Luis Guzman (Sergeant Moorehead), David Cross (Ian), Dan Fogler (Zack), Ben Stiller (Lonnie); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Todd Phillips/J. Geyer Kosinski/Daniel Goldberg; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Dimension Films; 2006)
“Filled with lame schoolboy yuks.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s loosely based on the 1960 British comedy directed by Robert Hamer entitled “School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!” — which was based on Stephen Potter’s “One-Upmanship” and “Lifemanship” books. Todd Phillips (“Old School”) unimaginatively directs and co-writes with Scot Armstrong, failing to make any of the characters even remotely interesting or worth giving one thought about. Filled with lame schoolboy yuks, weak slapstick shtick and cruel mindless humor, the formulaic comedy lures the viewer in with its crudeness and the charm of pairing as foils geeky Jon Heder doing his Napoleon Dynamite bumbler role again and the cool Billy Bob Thornton his badass Bad Santa role again.

Jon Heder plays the nerdy Roger, a forlorn employee of the New York City Parking Bureau. The uniformed parking enforcement officer is bullied on the job, suffers his third rejection from a kid as a Big Brother, and frets that he doesn’t have enough nerve to ask his attractive apartment next door neighbor, the bland Australian named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), out on a date. He then pays $5,000 to enroll for a secret Learning Annex program offering him a confidence-building class in order to win the love of his dream girl. His teacher is the vile and ruthless con man Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton), who rules over a men’s class of sad sacks by browbeating them, telling them to always lie and then asking them to roar like lions. Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan) is the imposing assistant to Dr. P., who carries out teach’s lessons in cruelty with glee. To teach wimpy Roger a lesson in alpha manhood, Dr. P. steals Roger’s Amanda and it builds to how Roger gets his revenge on teach as he fights to get Amanda back.

Most of the childish humor fell flat, but a few yuks might be taken from a paintball fight at point-blank range and a mixed-doubles tennis match that has Roger repeatedly hitting teach with the ball (at least the youngsters in the audience found this PG-13 physical humor hilarious).

It wastes the comedy talents of stand-up comic Sarah Silverman in a meaningless role as Amanda’s bitchy stereotyped New Yorker roommate; the usually funny Luis Guzman has a minor role as Heder’s Parking Bureau boss where he shows he can get into the mean-spirited story line if only he had a part that called for more screentime; and Ben Stiller has an unfunny cameo as a former student reduced to being a hermit but through Heder getting another chance to get revenge on Dr. P. and Lesher that goes nowhere except maybe in Peekskill.

The rush to a sweet ending that has Heder winning the girl because that’s the way these contrived films must go seemed to sap the film of its energy; also the film’s lack of any edge and its lack of conviction in trying to get more than sight gags into the mix, leave it drained of any real comic tension and limp in its approach to the human condition. This is an inert film that does a lot of heavy lifting for the few laughs it manages to get, which came not because it was funny but more as a reflex action at what was supposed to be funny.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”