School for Scoundrels

MGM

Directed by Todd Phillips

2.5 stars



“There are two types of people in this world: those that run shit, and those who eat shit.” So goes the mantra of Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), a successful businessman who makes a living denigrating the lives of pathetic Manhattan men in a “top-secret” confidence-building class.

Roger (“Napoleon Dynamite’s” Jon Heder) is one of those sad sacks who falls into the latter category of eating shit. He’s like the 25 year-old virgin—but with even uglier sneakers. With no confidence to approach his cute Australian neighbor, Amanda—played with deft adorability by Jacinda Barrett (“The Last Kiss”)—Roger signs up for the class.

When he shows up to the classroom there are about 20 other neurotic and emasculated guys cowering at the sight of Dr. P’s lineback-like assistant, Lesher (Michael Clark Duncan, “Talladega Nights”). Then Thornton emerges, like Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield on Red Bull, relentlessly mocking these wusses and instilling in them pseudo-macho wisdom about landing hot chicks. His favorite pearl of wisdom is the ignorantly cliché, “lie, lie, and lie some more.”

However, Roger processes Dr. P’s words of advice, even scoring a date (and kiss) with Amanda. But when Dr. P sets his sights on the comely object of Roger’s affection, war erupts between the two men.

Perhaps the main problem with “Scoundrels” is that director Todd Phillips (“Old School”) is too bogged down in clichés—numerous crotch shots, tennis balls to the head, and other such staples from the “Revenge of the Nerds” franchise.

The main laughs come from Thornton’s top-notch performance. He uses his “Bad Santa” demeanor to his advantage, establishing himself as the go-to Hollywood gentleman who can tackle dark humor.

And it’s oddly fitting that Thornton would be teaching a class on masculinity—while he may not have Brad Pitt’s looks, let’s not forget that he was banging Angelina Jolie for a few years. His curt response to Roger about pursuing Amanda is even a possible jab at his former wife—“it’s not like you were getting ready to adopt a Chinese baby together.” And this is just one of the numerous examples that exemplify Thornton’s penchant for dry, but funny, deliveries.

Next to Thornton, Heder is, well, emasculated. His “Napoleon Dynamite” typecasted schtick of the anti-hero-we’re-supposed-to-root-for is running thin. Surprisingly, he didn’t don a “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt.

That said, “Scoundrels” doesn’t do Heder justice for the charisma and actual screen presence he actually possesses. His character is so poorly written and socially ignorant you almost want Thornton to sling blade him out of existence.

Supporting roles from Sarah Silverman (“Jesus is Magic”), David Cross (“Arrested Development”) and Ben Stiller make a last-ditch attempt to garner some laughter but just can’t carry this uncreative vehicle.

Fortunately for Silverman though, “Scoundrels” proves she is becoming a comedic force in her own right. Playing Amanda’s bitchy roommate, she comes across as harsher than Dr. P in her barbs at Roger’s expense.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite a surprisingly minimal amount of laughter from the man who brought us “Old School,” Phillips does deliver with a spot-on performance by Thornton that Mansfield would heartily endorse.

—Reviewer Jessica C. Coggins can be reached at jcoggins@fas.harvard.edu.