“School for Scoundrels”… “School for Scoundrels”… Must Google, I told myself, and find out if this has anything to do with that play by Sheridan — or was it Congreve? How cool would it be if Hollywood were making raunchy comedies today that actually had some of the bite and genuine social awareness of the Restoration- or Revolutionary-era playwrights? Could it be possible that there might come a rediscovery of the sophisticated comedy of manners that would accidentally also please fans of the Farrelly Brothers?
Well, turns out I was wrong about the provenance of School for Scoundrels — Sheridan’s School for Scandal was the title that was nagging at the corner of my mind, and it has nothing to do with this new movie, which is based on a 1960 British flick — but, as I discovered when I finally got to see the film, my God, Scoundrels actually does feel like it could be an updating of something mean and bawdy about mean-spirited cads on the make and the sweet innocent ladies they prey upon. If Clueless is Jane Austen for people who don’t know from books, then Scoundrels is farce for people who think Restoration comedy is when you spill a barrel of doorknobs in a fancy hardware store.
Not that it’s an unqualified success. Jon Heder’s Roger isn’t quite Napoleon Dynamite, but he’s a cousin, and it’s more than a little disappointing to see Heder, appealing though he can be, doing practically the same schtick again. Roger, a New York City traffic enforcement officer — yes, a meter maid — is nowhere near the booger-eating simpleton (another cousin of Napoleon’s) Heder played in The Benchwarmers, earlier this year, but he’s still an awkward dolt whom the film seems, at first to be specifically designed to humilate. But things start looking up in the This Might Actually Turn Out to Be Funny department when Roger, desperate to impress a pretty neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett: The Last Kiss, Poseidon), joins a secret class geared to, well, awkward dolts and other loser types looking to build their self-confidence and score some chicks. Run by a slick shark who calls himself Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton: The Ice Harvest, Friday Night Lights), it’s little more than a training school for jerks, with lots of lessons on getting unsuspecting women into bed through lies and manipulation. “What if you want a real girlfriend?” Roger wants to know, because he’s real sweet on Amanda. Instantly, we know he’s in the wrong place, and no good can come of this.
Director Todd Phillips — who wrote the script with Scot Armstrong — can’t quite leave behind the brainless idiocy and physical and psychological mortification as male bonding that characterized his previous films, Starsky & Hutch and Old School, but there are hints that he’s attempting to transcend such cinematically lazy falling back on Three Stooges humor. (One ongoing joke about male rape is pointless, though, and hence pointlessly unnerving, and almost makes the film irredeemable.) One sequence, in which Dr. P takes his class on a field trip to play every-man-for-himself paintball doesn’t wallow in the kind of ritual abuse to which guy movies like this typically resort. Oh, to be sure, there’s an extended round of kicks to the crotch — both actual and metaphoric — but instead of merely doing the kicking, Phillips gives it a bit of a thinky spin, as if he’s trying to figure out why men find it funny to kick other men in the groinal area.
The tentative answer, perhaps, is that it has to do with removing potential sexual competition from the playing field, and that’s where Scoundrels takes off. Dr. P, it seems, cannot bear to see any of his students do well, so, by tradition, he pits himself against his own best apprentice… in this case, Roger, naturally. Where Scoundrels works, it’s in the head-butting between the sweet-natured learner, now driven to hold on to what he has fought so hard for and wants so honestly and passionately — namely, Amanda, who has been won over — and the acid teacher, who insinuates himself to Amanda’s life with a sob story and a phony earnestness only as a ruse to spoil her on Roger. Thornton showed off a cynically outrageous mean streak in Bad Santa, and here he plays the comedic villain like he’s a character of tragic proportions, seesawing between hinting at a deeper sorrow of his own coldheartedness and reveling in it like it’s a massive joke only he understands.
Thorton, with his sincerity about comedy and peculiar onscreen gravitas, goes a long way toward making School for Scoundrels feel like a timeless classic updated for today. An overreliance on humor more mindless than not, though, cements it as a product of today.