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Saturday, September 30, 2006

School For Scoundrels

When exactly did Billy Bob Thornton turn into Jack Nicholson? I’m serious. For years Jack was just plain creepy. He seemed downright dangerous and not someone you wanted to trust around any woman, especially your daughter. Same with Billy Bob. That whole Angelina Jolie period was perverse, with the two of them wearing vials of one another’s blood around their necks and bragging about their penchant for rough-housing in the boudoir. Then Billy Bob, like Jack, seemed to lighten up. Jack went from making only stark dramas to silly comedies, and along the way he also found love off-screen and had a couple of kids. Suddenly, Jack was a family man and the Chinatown star went from being cutting-edge to cuddly friend-of-Regis. Now Billy Bob has done the same thing. First he started playing with kids in Bad Santa and Bad News Bears, then had three of his own in the past ten years, and is now hanging with Reege and Kelly, and even bragging about the cachet he has gained from getting his picture taken with that putrid purple dinosaur Barney. Our Hollywood “bad boy” has been tamed and the world is a little safer for ovulating females everywhere, at least for the time being.

Fortunately, the wicked Billy Bob is still on full display in School For Scoundrels, his newest release now playing at the Essex Cinemas. Here is Billy Bob in all his perfect comedic glory. He
is slick; he is sly; he is exasperating; he is tough; he is screwing someone over and getting screwed over along the way. In other words, he is just the things every Billy Bob fan wants to see him play. And best of all, he is doing this stuff with and to and at the hands of Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder.

If ever there was a more perfect comedy pairing it hasn’t occurred since Hollywood’s “golden age” when Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and even Hope and Crosby set the bar for comic teamwork. Here, we have two complete opposites in style and background who meld ideally as the yin and yang of this piece. Heder, who in real life is a devout Mormon, reflects an innocence in all his roles that is not necessarily a sign of naiveté so much as a moral righteousness that Heder has said he insists on finding in a script before he’ll consider it for himself. He believes in his faith and wants his
characters to reflect a just attitude and sense of fairness in getting what they want even if they don’t always do so in a conventional way. That pretty much sums up School For Scoundrels. In it, Heder plays Roger Waddell, a downtrodden parking enforcement officer (aka a “meter maid”), who is hopelessly infatuated with the girl next door in his apartment building, but he lacks the confidence and social skills to court her. Enter Dr. P. (Thornton), “professor” of a secret class offered only to men via word-of-mouth from one former participant to another (think Fight Club). Dr. P. and his towering assistant, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan; Sin City), promise nothing, but over the course of the following weeks, their oft-times unexpected and bizarre exercises do have an effect on the men in the class, especially Roger, who quickly proves his place as a natural leader.

Yet as Roger becomes “cooler” and more successful within his clique at school, Dr. P. shocks him by putting the moves on the very same woman that Roger came to the class to learn to woo. Soon, both men are competing to garner the attentions of Amanda (Jacinda Barrett; Poseidon), an Australian graduate student who is oblivious to the fact that Roger and Dr. P. even know one another yet alone are using her as a pawn in their own private war.

What follows is a game of one-upsmanship as the two males work harder and with more cunning to find ways to increase their chances at winning Amanda’s heart while demeaning or derailing their competitor completely. Herein lies the laughs as the plotting gets totally out of hand and layer upon layer of complexity twist and turns the evil that these men do to one another in their common goal to bring the other down. By the film’s end, nobody will ever be the same again.

The supporting players are all first rate performers, although unfortunately here they are pretty much wasted with little to do. Sarah Silverman (Rent) as Amanda’s whiny wretch of a roommate has some good lines. She constantly refers to Roger as “Dahmer” and is convinced that he is just weird enough to be a serial killer chopping up and cooking little boys for dinner in his apartment, but other than that, she has nothing to do. Horatio Sanz (until this newest season a staple of tv’s “Saturday Night Live!”), Matt Walsh (tv’s “Dog Bites Man”), and Todd Louiso (Snakes on a Plane) play Roger’s classmates and buddies, each with his own story to tell, but none are given the time to do so; David Cross (tv’s late and very lamented “Arrested Development” ) is practically a non-entity as Ian, the friend of Roger’s who introduces him to the secret school in the first place, and Ben Stiller (Night At The Museum) appears late in the action in the underwritten role of Lonnie, a former victim of Dr. P.’s who currently lives in hiding with 50 cats on the outskirts of Peekskill, NY, still fearing Dr. P. and Lesher’s powers to ruin him. Lonnie could support a whole movie of his own. He is just that spectacularly weird. Be sure to look for Vermont’s own Luis Guzmán (Disappearances) in a very funny cameo as Roger’s counselor/supervisor at work. It’s a job that would, in real life, be a handful, that’s for sure.

School For Scoundrels is not going to win any Academy Awards. It’s not powerhouse clever or groundbreaking. In fact, it is a remake of a 1960 British film called the wordier School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! which had its’ roots buried in the 18th century play “School For Scandal” by Richard Sheridan, so the plot has been well-worn and seen many times before, but that doesn’t distract from its’ ability to make you laugh. Heder and Thornton could not be more worlds apart in attitude, looks, acting style, and even speech rhythms, but that’s what makes them such perfect foils. They were meant to annoy one another on-screen, and the chemistry is palatable.

School For Scoundrels is providing laughs by the bucketful at the Essex Cinemas. If you enjoy a tale where love is best described as being “three days away from adopting a Chinese baby together” then you’ll enjoy the odd and ironic humor that sparkles throughout this silly little gem.

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