School for Scoundrels
Director : Todd Phillips
Screenplay : Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong (based on the books by Stephen Potter and a 1960 by Hal Chester and Patricia Moyes)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Billy Bob Thornton (Dr. P), Jon Heder (Roger), Jacinda Barrett (Amanda), Matt Walsh (Walsh), Horatio Sanz (Diego), Todd Louiso (Eli), Michael Clarke Duncan (Lesher), Paul Scheer (Little Pete), Jon Glaser (Ernie), Leonard Earl Howze (Carl), Ben Stiller (Lonnie)
In recent years, Billy Bob Thornton has been banking his career on playing a series of amusingly likable jerks, most notably (and hilariously) in Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003) and then again in Richard Linklater's limp 2005 remake of Bad News Bears, where he reimagined Walter Matthau's slovenly Morris Buttermaker as a more aggressively underhanded cad. Thornton is at it again in School for Scoundrels, although his turn as the mysteriously named Dr. P is not meant to be charmingly uncouth; rather, he is an unctuous rogue from start to finish who we are meant to root against. The hero of the story is Roger (Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite), one of those guys who is a sad combination of nice and pathetic. Roger's job is handing out parking tickets, and his station in life is neatly summarized by the diminutive rover he drives on the job, which apparently can't go faster than 5 mph. Roger is secretly in love with his neighbor, a beautiful Aussie named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett, The Last Kiss) who he can't get up the nerve to approach. Oh, and he is also prone to fainting spells if he gets too nervous or agitated. In other words, he's a walking amalgam of neutered male signifiers.
Roger finds potential salvation in the secretive titular course run by Thornton's Dr. P. He is joined by a classroom full of sad-sack losers played by familiar supporting actors like Saturday Night Live's Horatio Sanz and Todd Louiso, best remembered as John Cusack's awkwardly soft-spoken record store employee in High Fidelity (2000). Dr. P and his assistant, a grimacing hulk named Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), berate, humiliate, and debase their pathetic students into recognizing their lame lots in life and challenging themselves to do something about it. Of course, this is no ordinary self-help class. Dr. P's goal is not to turn his students into productive, mature, self-confident members of society, but rather predatory, underhanded cads who milk the system for all its worth and at anyone's expense, especially each other's.
The story takes a turn when Dr. P and the progessively confident Roger go head to head over Amanda, turning the movie into an increasingly nasty battle of would-be alpha males. Unfortunately, the story also begins to lose its focus at this point, as it becomes less about scoundrel behavior and more about con artistry. In some respects, the two are one in the same, as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) taught us so many years ago, but the movie still loses its early vibe as it replaces Dr. P's twisted academic enterprise with something closer in spirit to David Mamet minus the brilliant intrigue.
The film is based on a mostly forgotten 1960 British film that was in turn based on a popular series of novels by Stephen Potter. The screenplay was penned by Old School and Starsky & Hutch collaborators Scot Armstrong and Todd Philips (who also directed). Like their previous comedic forays, School for Scoundrels has some good ideas and funny moments, but it loses steam as it goes on, which you really feel when it resorts to yuks involving defibrillator paddles accidentally applied to a character's genitals.
On another note, like so many comedies that tackle issues of potentially genuine emotional and social resonance, School for Scoundrels is inherently confused about its subject matter and risks hypocrisy in charting Roger's rise from loser to stud. In short, it wants to have its cake and eat it too by punishing Dr. P and his nefarious behavior while simultaneously showing how that very behavior is Roger's ticket to a better life. At best, it suggests that Dr. P has simply taken it too far by twisting confidence into an excuse to take advantage of anyone and anything. In other words, it's okay to be a scoundrel as long as you're a nice guy, too.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer