School for Scoundrels (MGM, PG-13)

Heder may not be a chameleon of a thespian, but he has enough skill to play a lovable schlub who grows some balls without turning into the man he despises.

 

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It might sound obvious, but all I really want from a goofy comedy is a few good laughs. I don't need amazing performances or realism. The plot doesn't even need to make a whole lot of sense. School for Scoundrels just met my laugh challenge, and even managed to throw in solid acting and good story.

Roger (Jon Heder) is a sad-sack New York City meter man with a huge, unrequited crush on his neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). Tired of using an endless round of self-help books that don't seem to help at all, Roger enrolls in a secret society-like class taught by the rude and ruthless Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). And Dr. P teaches confidence like no one you've ever seen before. It isn't long before Roger puts his all into the class and comes away with impressive results. What he doesn't know, though, is that once you distinguish yourself in Dr. P's eyes, you'll soon wish you could've kept your "inner lion" much tamer.

I wasn't pinning my hopes for a good time on School for Scoundrels. Honestly, it struck me as one of those films where all the good parts are available for free-in the trailer. Luckily, though, I was wrong. Watching a movie and actually laughing when you're supposed to should not be a surprise. When it happens, though, you realize what a rare and wonderful thing it is.

Writer/director Todd Phillips has racked up silly comedy credits with films like Old School and Starsky & Hutch, so he has the perfect sensibility for a movie like this. Phillips starts with an interesting conceit: a Fight Club-type confidence class where you're just as likely to get torn down by Dr. P as you are to get beaten up by his he-man "teaching assistant" Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan). While the main story follows a predictable path, it does take some outrageous steps to get where it's going. The best scenes involve the exercises Roger and his pitiful classmates have to complete, and the havoc that ensues in Roger's life when his excellence unleashes Dr. P's competitive side. Many people—including Roger and his fellow students—try to avoid confrontation as much as possible. When challenged to initiate an altercation, however, these meek men start to realize that swirlies, sleeping outside, and cab fare are small prices to pay in exchange for confidence.

You may have noticed Ben Stiller in the promos for School for Scoundrels. He plays a small part as a former student of Dr. P's who was driven out of town when the teacher's devious tactics wrecked his life. Here, Stiller has finally broken free of his fall-back comedic caricature: that damn Derek Zoolander. Some slight variation of that dumb-ass male model has shown up in Anchorman, Dodgeball, and other work of Stiller's. School for Scoundrels may actually mark a new beginning for him and those of us who like to watch him work some variety into his roles.

Heder and Thornton are well matched as student and teacher turned adversaries. Heder is reliably sweet and put-upon as Roger, until he has to tackle Dr. P's dastardly schemes to ruin his life. He may not be a chameleon of a thespian, seeing as how Heder's done nothing but show us the doofus since he first appeared in Napoleon Dynamite, but he has enough skill to play a lovable schlub who grows some balls without turning into the man he despises.

Thornton was an interesting choice for Dr. P. He's clearly a good actor, and since his career seems to be in its make-fun-of-my-serious-Oscar-winning-past stage, this role was a goldmine. Thornton alternates between smooth, savage, and slapstick at a rapid pace and makes it all work. (In Bad Santa he showed off similar comedic chops, only sans Dr. P's polished demeanor.) When Roger and Dr. P have their showdown, Thornton's final comeuppance got the biggest laugh of any scene I've seen in a theater in a month.

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