It’s nerd versus Billy Bob in Todd Phillips’ amusing new comedy.
Todd Phillips first burst onto the screen with the 2000 comedy Road Trip, which starred Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart and introduced an unsuspecting mainstream to the antics of Tom Green. Phillips’ follow-up was the smash comedy Old School, which turned Will Ferrell from Saturday Night Live scene-stealer to feature comedy superstar.
For his latest, Phillips has gathered another impressive cast list including Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett (Poseidon, The Last Kiss) and Michael Clarke Duncan. Heder stars as lovable loser Roger, a New York City meter maid whose self-doubt has hit epic proportions. His shelves are filled with self-help books, but he can’t seem to build the nerve to talk to his cute Aussie neighbor Amanda. After being ousted from a big brother program by a child, Roger’s friend Ian (David Cross) introduces him to a super-secretive class where losers can learn to bring out their hidden cool.
The mysterious teacher is named Dr. P (Thornton), a cross between Tony Robbins and Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey character from Magnolia. He encourages his students to become aggressive lions, offering such priceless tips as wearing sunglasses at all times and, when speaking to women, “Lie, lie and lie some more.” His assistant is the deep-talking, intimidating Lesher (Duncan). Needless to say, there are some flaws to P’s methods. As Roger excels in the teachings and life starts to take off for the once-loser, the ultra-competitive Dr. P decides it’s time to take him down a notch or two, setting his own sights on Amanda. As it turns out, P may have underestimated the true animal nature of the lion he’s unleashed from within the once meager meter maid. Co-stars include Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz, Todd Louiso, Luis Guzman, Paul Scheer and Sarah Silverman.
School For Scoundrels begins by painting Roger as such a total loser that the story nearly steps right past comedy into drama. Anyone watching will likely feel cooler than Roger, no matter how sweaty their palms get when talking to a pretty girl. This guy makes the 40-Year-Old Virgin look confident by comparison. Heder is perfectly cast in the role and nails the part, so much so that after only a few feature roles, he may be forever typecast as the go-to nerd in Hollywood.
The true comedy comes at the hands of Billy Bob Thornton, who has shown such a knack for the genre ever since his unforgettable portrayal of the worst St. Nick ever in Bad Santa. Dr. P is, in reality, a pretty terrible person, but to the group he’s teaching, he becomes a God. P thrives on this perception, molding the group into mirror images of his dysfunctional, awful self.
Shades of Old School are undeniable. Instead of guys in their late 30’s longing for the care-free fun of their college days, you have guys in their late 20’s/early 30’s longing for the self-confidence to improve the quality of their romantic and professional lives. Frat initiations are replaced with class exercises, such as trying to talk to Lester in drag (Clarke Duncan in a blonde wig is something to see) and a military-style paintball sequence that is one of the film’s comic highlights.
Heder shows a new side of his comedic talents when the gloves come off for a mono e mono battle between Roger and Dr. P. While P’s approach to screwing over Roger is more of a subtle burn, Roger is surprisingly mean-spirited and relentless. A doubles tennis sequence where the boys square off with Amanda and her roommate is arguably the film’s funniest moment.
Todd Phillips doesn’t break new comedic ground, but Scoundrels keeps the laughs coming at a strong enough pace to keep audiences entertained. He’s got a formula that works and, for now, he’s sticking to it. As fans of his previous work might expect, some regular players make appearances in the film, including a very important character that appears in the latter third of the movie.
School For Scoundrels is a fitting entry into the loser-makes-good genre in the tradition of The Lonely Guy and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. It’s a popcorn pleaser that delivers enough laughs for an entertaining night at the movies.