Last year, Macleans famously asked on its cover if we were, in fact, living in the Age of the Wuss; the former Canadian Tire Guy was the cover boy and thus representing the inherent traits of the things that makes one a wuss. If that story were to run this fall though, the cover wuss would have to be Roger, the hero of the new Todd Phillips’ comedy School for Scoundrels.
Roger, as played by Jon Heder, is a perpetually down-on-his-luck, non-confrontational loser that works as a New York City meter maid and secretly pines for Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), the grad student from down the hall. After an unfortunate encounter with some street toughs who literally steal the clothes off his back, Roger is given the number for what he thinks is a confidence building class, but it turns out to be some sort of manly man jerk-building retreat. The class is run by the nefarious Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) who teaches his students to invest in the philosophy of every man for himself and to “be dangerous, it’s cool.” Roger quickly rises to be Dr. P’s best student and it’s at this point the game turns into The Game (like the Fincher version).
This is the Billy Bob Thornton show: pure and simple, the air is electric every time he’s on screen as he just revels in his own meanness. Heder meanwhile, seems teetering on the point where he’s using up the very last of the good will generated by Napoleon Dynamite because he just plays the same character with varying degrees of severity. However, when Heder and Thornton get together it’s, if you’ll pardon the pun, dynamite. Roger’s naivety and earnestness is the perfect counter for Dr. P’s malicious cynicism. From Roger’s POV, the point of the duel with Dr. P is to keep Amanda away from such a dangerous character, while Dr. P is just a self-serving prick that enjoys building people up just to push them off the ledge.
Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast falls kind of flat with the notable exception of Michael Clarke Duncan as Dr. P’s masochistic assistant, Lesher. There are so many extremely talented comedic actors in this movie like David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Todd Louiso, but they are criminally underused. Even Ben Stiller, who gets near top billing in the film’s trailers, seems to be sleep walking through his scenes, he’s just not really engaged in what’s going on. At the very least, Jacinda Barrett gets to keep her Australian accent, I must have seen her in like five movies this year and this is the first time I’ve heard her in natural modulation.
It’s a neat cast to be sure but they’re misspent; at least Thornton and Heder get plenty of opportunities to have some fun though. Like Old School and Starsky & Hutch, Phillips builds a hilarious comedy around two very capable leads. School of Scoundrels may not be perfect but it’s got more than a few outright belly laughs to make for a highly entertaining 100 minutes in the theatre. And at least you won’t feel dirty afterwards, like the sad-faced patrons upset that the knitwits in Jackass didn’t get what was coming to them.