SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELSPG-13
Meet woebegone Roger (Jon Heder), one of those terminally shy, uncoordinated geeks who is destined, we know from long experience with the genre, to get the girl and gain revenge on his tormentors. Roger works as a traffic-enforcement agent—a meter maid—a job that requires him to wear short pants and drive a wobbly three-wheeled scooter. On the morning of our introduction, Roger is writing a parking ticket for a car belonging to a pair of toughs. We’ll pass over the fact that these rakish homeboys fire off a few rounds in protest (no one pays attention to gunshots in New York) and cut to the punch line: Roger must report to his superior (Luis Guzmán) in his underwear, having been stripped of his clothing as well as his wallet, the coup de grâce delivered by his mocking co-workers who prance about the office in their boxers and tees.
The humor improves as School for Scoundrels progresses, albeit predictably, to its paradoxically improbable conclusion, but this romantic comedy offers few surprises. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot makeshift, and the jokes unrelentingly cruel, not that this matters to the target audience, the so-called echo generation of teens and young adults who make up a third of the U.S. population. One imagines even this cohort tiring of such fare, but maybe not… Perhaps life is one big skit with all the best bits on replay.
Suffering further humiliations, Roger decides to enroll in a curiously clandestine course for losers that promises to build their self-confidence and, more to the point, get them laid. The guru offering the class, Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), is something of a dweeb himself, but one who has mastered the art of intimidation. With the aid of his sadistic sidekick, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), he instructs his charges in the noble art of lying, cheating and scheming to get ahead. Roger becomes his star pupil.
Director Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch) at least moves the story forward at a steady pace and, despite the ordinary material, allows Heder and Thornton (and Ben Stiller in a paranoid cameo) to milk it for enough snickers to relieve the tedium of the misfits’ tribulations, which consist of “swirlies” (head dunks inside a flushed toilet) and other indignities. The film picks up when Dr. P initiates the second phase of his program, in which he tests Roger by stealing his girl, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), thereby forcing his prize student to prove his manhood. Of course, it’s just as likely that Dr. P is a sociopath who confuses tutoring with torture, but that’s the kind of distinction the filmmakers don’t parse too finely.
One of the movie’s more sophisticated sequences pits Roger and Dr. P on the tennis court in a doubles match with Amanda and her whiny roommate (Sarah Silverman). The scene is a wink and nod to the original School for Scoundrels, a 1959 British farce starring Ian Carmichael as our hapless hero, Alastair Sim as the dean of the College of Lifemanship, and Terry-Thomas as an obnoxious car salesman. Although credited to Patricia Moyes and Hal E. Chester, the screenplay was written by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, a blacklisted American working in England, and directed by Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets). Hamer was taken off the picture, his last, when he collapsed on the set from alcohol abuse. The DVD is available (but not from Netflix), in case anyone wants to find out what Old School really means.