In School for Scoundrels, director Todd Phillips
(Road Trip) proves that his truest virtue is also his greatest vice. Most comedies
made in Hollywood today are stuffed to the gills with joke after joke after joke, with seemingly little regard for whether the humor actually works. In the bizarre logic of studio filmmaking, a lame joke is better than no joke at all. Phillips takes the opposite tack in his films. He's more concerned with the quality of laughs than with the quantity of them. His best effort, Old School, is a riotously funny movie with a surprisingly conservative sprinkling of jokes. It's a model of comic efficiency. Every bit works and every gag hit its target. However, there's a dark side to this approach. The slightest miscalculation in the quality of a joke can lead to long stretches without so much as a chuckle or even a smirk. And it's this problem that unfortunately afflicts School for Scoundrels.
Scoundrels gets off to a sluggish start as it introduces its main character, Roger (Jon Heder
), a geeky New York City meter maid (meter butler?) whose life is falling apart. He gets robbed at work. His boss is unsympathetic to his problems and his coworkers ridicule him. He regularly humiliates himself in front of his gorgeous neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett
). And even his volunteer work is a disaster, as his Little Brother asks to be assigned to someone else. Heder channels the inner nerd that carried Napoleon Dynamite to its stratospheric success, but the script doesn't provide enough originality or comic punch to bring his character to life. The opening 15 minutes are flat, dimensionless, and largely laugh-free. Article continues below
Things pick up a bit when Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton
) makes his entrance. Dr. P runs a secretive class out of the Learning Annex, teaching meek men to assert themselves and seize their desires through Machiavellian means. He's kind of like Hitch without a conscience. Dr. P's teaching techniques are tough and mean-spirited, designed to bring the lion out of lambs, but that's just what Roger needs in order to win over Amanda. Or so he thinks. Dr. P's dating advice includes choice nuggets like "lie, lie, and lie some more." And, in one of the film's best sequences, he gives each of his students a pager and tells them they must initiate a confrontation, no matter where there are, within one minute of being paged. Thornton is his usual laconic self, delivering his few good lines with an appropriate air of bored superiority, but most of the time he seems uninvolved with his character, like he's sleepwalking through his performance.
As the story unfolds, it turns out that Roger is a quick study in the arts of ruthlessness and deception, in no time landing a date with Amanda and winning respect at his job. But Dr. P feels threatened by Roger's sudden success, and asserts his dominance over him by going after Amanda himself. A bitter, underhanded competition for Amanda's hand ensues, ultimately escalating into a full-scale campaign by both men to discredit, disparage, and humiliate the other.
The film's final sequence -- pitting Roger and Dr. P against each other in a supreme battle of wits, with Amanda's favor hanging in the balance -- spirals downward to the pits of absurdity. (Without saying too much, it should be noted that Phillips must not travel much because he doesn't know a thing about airport security.) But that's not Scoundrels' greatest problem. Its major flaw is its lack of laughs. Aside from a few barbs delivered by Sarah Silverman
, who plays Amanda's roommate, and a running gag about male-on-male rape, Scoundrels just isn't that funny. Its characters aren't fresh or memorable and its premise isn't that interesting. Scoundrels is light fare at its lightest, a truly average movie.