Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
A couple of months ago, I received free passes to a sneak preview of Little Miss Sunshine. My friends and I showed up over an hour before it was set to start (which they advise, since they over-“sell” events like this), yet we found that it was completely full. And so, on that night, we instead went off and watched yet another subversive documentary , and concluded that Little Miss Sunshine must be a terrific movie; how else to explain why so many people would flock to a showing on a weekday night?
Because of this, when I received my free advance tickets to School for Scoundrels, the new Jon Heder/Billy Bob Thornton movie, my friends and I made sure to get there WELL before the start time. However, unlike with our previous experience, we needn’t have bothered. We were one of the first people to show up, and in fact the theater was only two-thirds full by the time the movie started. As the lights dimmed, I wondered if this was a portent to the quality of the film.
School for Scoundrels follows a VERY well-worn three-act formula for this new breed of male-based comedies. In Act 1, we meet our hero – who is either a loser in some way, or a loser outright – and set up the odd circumstance by which he can right his ship. In Act 2, our hero embraces this circumstance, and finds things improving for him in unexpected ways. However, this new life creates a problem (almost always involving a girl). In Act 3, he combines his old and new self to confront (and ultimately conquer) this new problem. He gets the girl, and everyone leaves happy.
Since this formula is so rigidly followed in School for Scoundrels, let me break down the film in the same way.
Act 1: We meet Jon Heder, a NYC Meter Maid who is such a sad sack that even the kids he volunteers to play with through Big Brothers/Big Sisters don’t want to hang out with him. When things are at their lowest for him, a buddy tells him to call a secret number, and do whatever the person at the other end says.
This act has a few mildly funny scenes that center around Heder’s total debasement, but humor like this has its limits. To put it another way, what made Napoleon Dynamite funny was the fact that Napoleon, while actually an incredible loser, never saw himself that way. He was unaffected by the scorn that was both overtly and covertly heaped upon him, and thus we can laugh at him without feeling guilty. But in School for Scoundrels, Heder plays a guy who is completely hopeless, and knows it. The first minutes of the movie get worse and worse for him, until he starts crying. The only laughs in the house at that point were either evil, or uncomfortable.
(Writer’s note to Jon Heder: I apologize for comparing this role to Napoleon Dynamite. I am sure that you have heard like comparisons for everything you have done since that time, and will continue to do so for years. However, to be fair, I warned you about this.)
Act 2: Heder finds his way to a secret class taught by Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Clarke Duncan (both very well cast). They assert that the roomful of men sitting before them are all complete losers, yet they will be changed. Through a series of classroom and “field” assignments, we watch these men slowly come into their own, albeit in macho, self-destructive ways. Heder thrives in the class, and even gets the girl he loves from afar to go out with (and even kiss) him. However, his success threatens Thornton, who starts a campaign to destroy Heder. Heder once again reaches rock bottom.
This was undoubtedly the best part of the movie. The sight of meek, pacifistic men instigating violent interactions upon direct order was very funny to see, and the competition between Heder and Thornton took some excellent turns. I can honestly say that there were at least three legitimate belly laughs during this section, which as we’ve stated before is pretty damn good for today’s movie standards.
Act 3: Heder concocts a plan to exact his revenge on Thornton, and win the girl. He enlists the help of several current and former students, and they put the plan into action. There is a climactic confrontation between teacher and student, and (SPOILER ALERT: Although, if you don’t see this coming, you probably didn’t “get” this movie at all) Heder wins the day.
As in most every movie of this genre, Act 3 is so weak that it brings down everything that has happened before it. It begins with the now-clichéd “surprise frat-pack comedy all-star cameo” (at least, it was written and filmed to be a surprise. The ad campaign gives away his presence in the film, which is neither funny or unexpected. When will filmmakers learn that just letting someone who is “supposed” to be funny show up on screen is NOT the same thing as actually creating funny content?) and ends with a resolution that is completely unrealistic and stupid. I DESPERATELY want to give away the ending to fully explain all the ways that it defies logic, but I will refrain from doing so. However, I will say that, after a full movie of Heder and Thornton both trying to outsmart each other to win the same girl, she comes around NOT because of something great that Heder says or does, but rather because Thornton makes a critical mistake. WHY make a movie all about giving the lead the confidence to take what he wants, and THEN let him GET what he wants SOLELY BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE FUCKS UP? Somehow, Thornton’s mistake leads the girl to completely abandon her intention of fucking him, and pop Heder’s cherry instead. This ending may be “satisfying,” in that the good guy wins, but it’s also lame.
So, in conclusion, go see School for Scoundrels if you want a middle third with some good laughs, bookended by mediocrity. Go whenever; I’m pretty certain that there won’t be any long lines.