Take a 60’s British comedy as your base, add a heavy dose of Napoleon Dynamite, a pinch of Bad Boy Billy Bob, a splash of sketch comedy TV alums (Horatio Sanz and David Cross) under the direction of Old School /Starsky & Hutch helmer Todd Phillips, mix it and bake for about 100 mins till browned and out pops School For Scoundrels. That’s a long recipe.
School For Scoundrels centers around Roger (Jon Heder AKA Napoleon), a gawky 20-something who dreams about the girl down the hall (Jacinda Barrett) but isn’t able to approach without fainting from a panic attack. He’s turned on by a friend to a secret class in the depths of the NYC Learning Annex that teaches awkward waifs how to become into manly men. Who would teach a class like this? An audacious know-it all prick named Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his muscle-bound assistant (Michael Clarke Duncan).
When you have an average comedy plot with a decent angle, it’s truly in the hands of the comedic ensemble to see what magic they can bring to the situation. Think about Dodgeball for a second. The plot is ludicrous; the “twist” is the Dodgeball tournament. The payoff is in the performances of Vince Vaughn and a ridiculous Ben Stiller and the interplay that follows, Jason Bateman and Gary Cole’s excellent play by play announcing for ESPN 8 The Ocho added extra outside comedic depth to put it over the top.
Sadly, with Heder in the prime dweeb role, School For Scoundrels doesn’t come near to its possible full potential. It’s tough to write Heder off immediately but his comedic timing and delivery doesn’t stray much with his identifiable Napoleon Dynamite persona. He has talent in physical comedy, when it comes to a good fall or an embarrassing reaction. Heder has long ago mastered awkward, goofy pauses but still needs to go back to acting classes to learn an alternate method of dialogue delivery that can add depth to his repertoire as a comedic performer.
Scoundrels makes up for Heder’s shortcomings with a terrific batch of ensemble roles from the likes of David Cross, Luis Guzman, Paul Scheer, Sarah Silverman and a host of others. Luis Guzman is a perfect example for Heder to model himself after, an actor that perfectly flows from serious roles in Traffic and Boogie Nights to standout characters in comedies like Waiting and Welcome to Collinwood. The few scenes between Heder as a battered NYC parking attendant and Guzman as his boss/ job counselor are priceless.
Billy Bob’s antagonist Dr. P relieves some of the pressure in the film’s best scenes like when he shows up to play some tennis decked out in with Bjorn Borg wooden racket complete with tighter than tight spandex sporting attire. It’s a physical comedy barrage that again plays to Heder’s strengths.
If you’ve got a comedy about a group of goofy men that needs to be filmed Todd Phillips is your man. From Road Trip to Old School, this man has perfected the college laugh-a-thon, and somehow School For Scoundrels doesn’t take place on any college campus. It’s more than likely his writing partner Scot Armstrong will be ready to pitch in to the project. Phillips sets up the gags with skill giving the performer a chance to make it happen. And it does happen, for the most part, especially when his buddy Ben Stiller comes in with his own bit part as Dr. P’s long-defeated, cat loving archrival.
School For Scoundrels falls flat comically more often than you’d like to see but has enough gut busters to establish it as an above average comedy. Don’t go in expecting a classic but if you’re in a mood for a couple of good laughs on a humdrum Saturday night, this is your ticket.