Roger (Jon Heder) is a meter-reader with little confidence and not a lot to live for. Browbeaten, verbally abused, and harassed by everyone in his life, he takes the advice of his close friend (David Cross) to take a self-esteem class taught by a man named "Dr. P" (Billy Bob Thornton), who is quickly found to be the kind of self-esteem teacher to teach you the ways of confidence and self-worth by providing you with even more verbal abuse in your life. Roger's ultimate goal - besides earning respect from others - is to win the heart of his neighbor, an Australian graduate student named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), who he can't seem to talk to without being met with a panic attack or fainting.
Todd Phillips' School for Scoundrels is a remake of the 1960 film of the same name, which I can only imagine to be a bit nicer and less bossy in its tone and approach to its material. However, despite its over-arching mean-spiritedness as one of its themes, School for Scoundrels actually manages to be a consistently funny comedy, mostly thanks to its capable band of actors, all of whom have had some work in the comedy field and know just what to say and how to say it when the time is right.
For starters, consider Billy Bob Thornton, who is simply fearless as Dr. P here. Thornton has a way of assimilating well to any given role, be it a foul-mouthed mall-Santa, a questionable folk from the backwoods, or a browbeating self-esteem teacher. Thornton works well here because he's as brash and as off-color as the material, often assisted by his character's assistant "Lesher," played by Michael Clarke Duncan. Now consider Jon Heder who, before this, only got to show his skills in one of the most lackluster comedies of the last decade. Heder is a solid, sympathetic character here, especially for those who can see his characters' struggles and hunger for acceptance and are willing to buy into it. Some characters in films are the reason for their own problems (take virtually any Adam Sandler film from the nineties), but Heder's Roger is simply a bit geeky and a tad uncoordinated, and for that, is unfortunately the target for abuse and ridicule. On those notes alone, his character is easy to side with because he is relatively blameless.
Alongside Heder are the likes of Sarah Silverman as Amanda's friend who continues to give Roger a hard time, Horatio Sanz, Aziz Ansari, David Cross, Dan Fogler, Luis Guzmán, Jim Parsons, and Ben Stiller (however, in a role of questionable value), all of whom very competent comedians who accentuate the quick-witted qualities that got them to that level in the first place. While School for Scoundrels gets by almost entirely on the charisma of its actors, Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong's writing shouldn't go unnoticed. For the most part, the writing duo create an unabashedly fun, silly comedy with enough consistent laughs to warrant a recommendation.
The only struggle for the film is how it wants to achieve its climax, in this case, making the entire "get the girl" subplot too silly and way too overblown. The film was grounded in a certain, goofy reality up until maybe the eighty-minute mark, and for that reason, the film becomes a bit of a struggle to continue to buy into during its last twenty-five minutes. Regardless, it can't derail the comedic talent at hand, along with Jon Heder's Roger, who, for once, isn't picked on because of his own stupidity but for his own genial manner and geeky appearance. He's a character I can see many identifying with.
Three years after the release of School for Scoundrels (which bombed at the box office and has now, eight years later, faded into almost complete obscurity), Todd Phillips hit a comedy homerun, financially, after directing all three Hangover films, effectively transcending his career into heavily-raunchy material and leaving geniality behind with School for Scoundrels. This is kind of an upsetting fact because this film has the unsung ability to identify when the two sequels leaching off the original Hangover were nothing but an annoyance to moviegoers. The film at hand rarely achieves comedic heights, but its dramatic ones are worth noting and appear to have been grossly shortchanged.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Sarah Silverman, Horatio Sanz, David Cross, Dan Fogler, Luis Guzmán, Ben Stiller, Jim Parsons, and Aziz Ansari. Directed by: Todd Phillips.
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