“School for Scoundrels”: Weak script dooms comedy

I have a great idea for a film. It would be called “School for People Who Can’t Execute a Coherent Script Good, and Who Want to Learn to Act Good Too.” It would star the cast and crew of “School for Scoundrels,” and would document them trying to learn to make a decent movie, following them on random subplots while maintaining vague and ambiguous characters. Except that I just saw that movie.

The idea behind “School for Scoundrels” – a hopeless loser getting whipped into shape by a hard-nosed and unhinged “teacher” – is appealing, because it speaks to the underdog in all of us. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, a poor script undermines the believability of the characters, while weak direction and acting wastes them.

“School for Scoundrels” stars Jon Heder as Roger, a spineless meter maid with an attractive and available neighbor named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). In an attempt to raise his self-esteem, Roger enrolls in a top-secret class – taught by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) – designed to help peons like him. What follows is a series of jaunts led by Dr. P designed to unleash the students’ inner lion, or essentially make them assholes. The course goes well, and Roger gets up the courage to ask Amanda out. Dr. P, sensing a potential challenge to his alpha male status, decides to court Amanda as well, and Roger must find a way to “outhunt” his more experienced teacher.

Ultimately, “School for Scoundrels” is good for a few laughs. Some of the physical comedy is pretty funny. Yet the film misses more than it hits, and there are extended sequences that confuse more than they amuse. For example, we find that Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), Dr. P’s assistant, enjoys sleeping with students. An entire subplot develops with an unnecessary former student (Ben Stiller) that doesn’t make any sense and isn’t funny, because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. These failed sequences come off as desperate attempts to add a few laughs that aren’t in the trailer, and highlight the fact that Heder never develops his character enough to really carry the full weight of the movie.

Heder plays loser better in Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon was weird, and his idiosyncrasies were funny and obvious. Roger is more normal, however, and Heder has trouble making him unique, often slipping into Napoleon-like moments while attempting to force some humor.

Thornton’s Dr. P. is likewise underdeveloped. He shifts from good to bad with unhinged ease, yet Dr. P never really seems to have solid reasoning for what he does. He claims it’s a love of competition that drives him to be a cad, but he never really goes past that. His rationale never seems to make sense, and the film is in no way concerned with figuring out why he’s the way he is. Instead we get another unnecessary subplot.

This movie wasn’t very good. It’s doomed by a weak script and uninspired direction. If you want to laugh for 5 minutes watch Blackadder on Youtube instead. Simply put, “School for Scoundrels” is school for weak-sauce.

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