Todd Phillips has made a string of comedies -- Frat House, Road Trip and Old School -- all springing from bad male behavior, capturing the seeming link between heightened testosterone and reduced I.Q. Phillips' biggest success, Old School, shone probably not thanks to any directorial touch he brought to the material, but rather because he had a triumvirate of charismatic, funny leads in Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughan and Will Ferrell. In School for Scoundrels, starring Jon Heder as Roger, a nebbishy New Yorker who takes bad cad Billy Bob Thornton's dating confidence course, Phillips doesn't have three funny, charismatic leads; he only has one.
The fact that Jon Heder has somehow become a leading man is a mystery that will be puzzled over by future generations. Much like Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket, Napoleon Dynamite exploded Heder onto the scene with a bravura performance in an independent film, a film full of the energy you get from a young actor giving a part everything he has. Unlike Wilson, though, Heder is a zero-charisma screen presence, a wispy, insubstantial figure who cannot hold his own against any other actor -- or even hold our attention. Some might make the case that hey, Heder's character is supposed to be a bit of a gimp in this film -- uncharismatic, not forceful -- but that's a load of hooey: Heder's Johnny one-note skill set is getting tired terribly, terribly fast.
It's a shame, because Thornton certainly gives School for Scoundrels a firm go as Dr. P., the malevolent, Machiavellian dating-and-mating machine who teaches a secret course to New York's loners and misfits. Aided by his aide-de-camp Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan, massive and malicious), Dr. P. runs a $5,000 curriculum in how to meet, seduce and abandon women. Dr. P. spits a question to his first class: "How many of you losers own a self-help book?" The entire group tentatively, but unanimously, raises their hands. "See, that's the problem: You can't help yourself because your self sucks."
There's undoubtedly a correlation between School for Scoundrels and recent pop-culture discussions of the quick-and-dirty rules of seduction -- from Tom Cruise's gutter-talking girl-getting guru in Magnolia to the techniques analyzed and used by Neil Strauss in his book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists. And Dr. P.'s program is similar -- full of advice like "Lie, lie and lie some more" and "Be dangerous: It's cool." Of course, Roger isn't interested in Dr. P's course because of a desire to know many women but, rather, to know one -- his beautiful Australian neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). After a few courses, Roger gets a date with Amanda -- and gets cocky. Worse, what Roger doesn't know is that Dr. P's narrowed, lizard-like lids mask eyes glazed green with jealousy.
There are a few gonzo moments of comedy in School for Scoundrels -- a paintball exercise with minimal safety precautions and maximum frenzy, or a faked arrest that goes terribly awry once the pepper spray breaks out. But we have absolutely no reason to root for Roger, aside from the fact that he's played by Jon Heder -- and that's not enough to get us on board, really. Phillips does have a few great character actors and comedians sprinkled into the film -- one of Roger's friends is played by David Cross, and Amanda's roommate is played by Sara Silverman; in some parallel universe, this movie stars Cross and Silverman instead of Heder and Barrett, and is infinitely better.
Thornton is easy enough to watch, though -- his work as Dr. P is hardly the equivalent of his hysterical, magnetic performance in Bad Santa, but it's still got a certain sour, lemon-zest zip to it, as he rapid-fire spits out directives to his needy, fascinated students. The fact is that you could have built a pretty neat movie around the Dr. P. character -- perhaps, in the vein of the Coen brothers' flawed-but-funny Intolerable Cruelty, have him run afoul of his opposite number who is, not coincidentally of, the opposite sex -- but putting Thornton against Heder is a one-sided affair.
Which is School for Scoundrels' biggest flaw: Like too many modern romances, it thinks our minds make some link between an actor's place in the billing of the film and their character motivations. The film gives us no reason why Roger might, in fact, be equipped to outwit and out-fight Dr. P., or why Amanda might like him, or he her; it's as if the act of casting a likable, familiar enough face is supposed to be enough of an argument for the audience.
But that's why Thornton's so easy to watch in School for Scoundrels: He's playing a seducer, and he seduces us with Dr. P's feral swagger, followed by 'sensitive revelations' that are actually as carefully planned as the placement of a sniper's nest. Phillips and screenwriter Scot Armstrong need to go back to comedy college, but Thornton alone -- snarling, sad-eyed, loopy and conniving -- is enough to get School for Scoundrels a gentleman's C.
For another take on School for Scoundrels, check out Karina Longworth's Netscape at the Movies video review of the film.