I begrudged Todd Phillips the success of his Old School, which I thought an exceedingly dumb film with a couple moments of sporadic gold, but his follow-up, by and large, deserves to be a mega-hit. School for Scoundrels is rated PG-13 and will hold less appeal for the college set, but at the same time it has a sharper edge, a quicker wit and more emotional heft; it also shows the first glimmer of hope for Jon Heder’s post-Napoleon Dynamite career.
In fairness, the film really belongs to Billy Bob Thornton, and it seems safe to assume that the role of Dr. P, the instructor of a top-secret class that promises to teach hopeless losers how to become kings of the jungle, was written for him. Who else can play a man who first asks people if they own a self-help book and then announces that “you’re being helped by a complete asshole”? Michael Clarke Duncan, in his best role since The Green Mile, is invaluable as Dr. P’s assistant, and his stint as Cindy, the practice date, is the highlight of his career.
The material is sometimes sophomoric — did we really need more mincing from Horatio Sanz? — and sometimes wasteful. The screenplay contains, among other things, a terrific gimmick: at one point, the students are given a beeper and informed that when the beeper goes off they must initiate a confrontation immediately. This is undeniable comedy gold, and had the film been in the hands of someone like Judd Apatow, the montage that follows would probably have earned a place in history. While what Phillips does is funny, he pretty much wastes the premise; the characters’ reactions are kind of arbitrary and too implausible to be hilarious.
On the other hand, the protagonist’s chosen profession of meter maid is mined for comedy gold, and his assigned mode of transportation is a terrific visual gag. Luis Guzman does an inspired cameo as his boss; the scene where Heder’s Roger asks to see a government counselor after a traumatic experience approaches genius. Enough of these bits are funny that, when combined with the consistent brilliance of Thornton and Duncan, they elevate School for Scoundrels above the half-hearted heights of Old School.
Heder’s performance helps a great deal. He makes Roger both a convincing and a sympathetic loser; there are times when his character slips into caricature, but Heder buries a note of burgeoning confidence under all the muttering and hyperventilating, so that when he confronts a bullying co-worker we’re able to cheer him on instead of scoffing in disbelief. We can even believe that Jacinda Barrett would fall for him.
Phillips is clearly becoming a mainstream director of some prominence, which is not surprising: he has some comic chops, an thoroughly inoffensive sensibility (comparable to Adam McKay’s if he fell out of love with Will Ferrell), and a talent for locating out-of-this-world high concepts. School for Scoundrels is thoroughly worthy of him, and appropriate for teenagers’ dollars, hard-earned or otherwise. I can’t imagine he will become a Hollywood force of nature, but considering the genre he’s working in, I guess that’s up to the teenagers.