School for Scoundrels Reviewed
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2006
Are you a loser? Don't worry, I'm not asking you; it's the first thing that teacher Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) asks Roger (Jon Heder) when he first arrives in Dr. P's class for "losers." School for Scoundrels is a romantic comedy about a hapless, unlucky young man bent on his own lack of confidence. His friend Ian (David Cross) suggests that Roger enroll in a secret confidence-boosting course taught by a stern teacher known only as "Dr. P" and his angry sidekick Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan). As Roger tries to win the heart of his apartment neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), he discovers that Dr. P himself is also out for Amanda. Roger must fight back with what little confidence he has to defeat his own teacher.
School for Scoundrels has been marketed as a comedy at its foundation, directed by Todd Phillips, the same creative mind behind Old School and Starsky and Hutch. Although the plot is at first heartwarming, it soon turns into a bumpy tragic romance where the comedy is unfortunately sparse. Phillips is excellent at creating great comedy, both in manipulating the actors and writing jokes and scenes, but there just isn't enough of it. Some jokes and some scenes are truly hilarious, but the comedy wore thin once the romantic competition between Roger and Dr. P started in earnest. Phillips can easily create quality comedy, but in his first romantic comedy effort the romance doesn't flow nearly as well.
There is one thing that Phillips always does right, and it's sports scenes. In Old School there was the unforgettable ending in the gym. In School for Scoundrels the most memorable scene is on the tennis court, a battle between Roger and Dr. P that brought on non-stop laughter throughout its entire duration. From the styling and dialogue to the camerawork and music, the tennis court scene was flawless. Phillips is more than a capable comedy director - where he falls short is in writing a story that will allow him to continually put in these great comedic moments. Even at the very end, Scoundrels' story jolted abruptly to a stop with a clichÃ©d and unenthusiastic epilogue.
There is a silver lining in the romantic elements of School for Scoundrels: Jacinda Barrett as Amanda, the primary love interest, who provides a very sweet and charming addition to the ensemble cast of comedic actors. She brings together the romantic elements of the story very well and fills the shoes of that attractive "girl-next-door" that both guys fall for. Phillips has also compiled an equally fantastic comedic ensemble with multiple cameos and great roles. Luis GuzmÃ¡n plays Heder's boss in the New York Parking Enforcement District and adds just the slightest touch of wise-cracking jokes in a small role that complements the scenes perfectly. Roger's classmate and friend Eli (Todd Louiso) also delivers priceless one-liners and quips that will leave everyone amused. The always-raunchy Sarah Silverman delivers another acerbic performance as Amanda's bitchy roommate. Horatio Sanz, as another classmate and friend, was the only one that I had hoped to see more of. He's great on "Saturday Night Live" and I would've expected an equally enjoyable experience on the big screen, yet he was never really given an opportunity to let loose.
Although the least exciting performances were from the lead actors, Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton, they both worked off of each other quite smoothly and turned out to be a solid comedic duo. When given the right lines and right moments, Heder can do a great job of separating himself from his widely recognized Napoleon Dynamite image. But in this comedic role, where he's meant to be a bit of a loser, he often times still seems like nothing more than an urban New York Napoleon. It's unfortunate that he remains typecast, but School for Scoundrels shows that Heder is slowly but surely improving at playing broader roles.
Overall School for Scoundrels hits well with some comedic moments, but falls short of delivering a complete experience from start to finish. Jacinda Barrett leads the romantic side of the film with her charming presence and is followed by a great selection of comedy greats. Heder and Thornton perform well as a comedic duo constantly at battle with one another and are supported by a hilarious selection of classmates and friends, including Todd Louiso and SNL's Horatio Sanz. The unfortunate flaw in School for Scoundrels lies within the reliance on the romantic storytelling which leads to boring scenes and less of Todd Phillips' excellent comedy. School for Scoundrels may not be the best comedy of the year, but Phillips is a master at creating memorable comedic scenes and Scoundrels does present quite a few of those.
What a pity. The original School for Scoundrels, starring Alistair Sim and Terry-Thomas, was a direct lift from Stephen Potter's Upmanship books. It was a true comedy, quite funny throughout, and had no need to make the teacher chase the student's quarry to create the romantic drama.
Steve on Sep 29, 2006
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