Tuesday, 26 December 2006

School for Scoundrels (2006)

Kill Bart if he ever writes this on the board

Jon Heder sort of reprises his quirky arch-loser archetype role again, after pioneering it in Napoleon Dynamite and expanding on the ‘quirky’ side in Just Like Heaven and the ‘loser’ side in Benchwarmers. You’d expect that the moment you see Jon Heder’s name on the movie poster that he’s definitely in another loser role, but School for Scoundrels is far more sophisticated than that: instead of just proclaiming LOSER as way of character introduction and development – and getting on with the comedy, the film actually establishes loserhood as some sort of existential state.

School For Scoundrels opens with Roger (Jon Heder) getting ready for work. He doesn’t goof up brushing his teeth or getting dressed (that would spell ‘retarded loser’ in the vein of a Rob Schneider comedy), but it’s unmistakable, the whiff of loserville that pervades his life. Roger reads tonnes of self-help manuals that are strewn all over his bedroom, on the shelves, and on the kitchen table, in place of a newspaper. And we all know that if there there were just one self-help book that actually worked to change lives for the better, without fail every time, there wouldn’t be millions of different self-help books (and management books!) on the market. Roger works as a meter maid, issuing tickets for parking offences. Problem is, his uniform consists of shorts, and the traffic police vehicle he drives looks like a poor man’s tuk-tuk. And there, a full depiction of loserness even without any physical comedy, a sadly hilarious portrayal even without Heder issuing his trademark drawl and goodnatured, meek loser routine.

And when he does start that routine – wearing pajamas, fainting when he talks to the nice girl who lives down the corridor (Jacinda Barrett) , apologising for issuing parking tickets, getting disowned by his charges in a voluntary Big Brother mentor campaign - it’s actually far more watchable than you expect, and you even get to like that character a lot. Now, the best thing for Roger, as one of his friends points out, is to enrol in a top secret course that turns wimps and mama’s boys into manly men. It’s run by a man only know as “Dr. P” (Billy Bob Thornton with a perpetual smirk and nasty attitude perfected from his stint at Bad Santa). His advice to the class will turn them into a scoundrel like him, and presumably help Jon get the girl who lives down the corridor: Learn how to pick fights with random strangers. Wear sunglasses indoors. Never compliment a girl on a date. Be nasty and underhanded if you want to get ahead.

The brand of humour, as befitting Dr. P’s school for scoundrels, is politically and socially incorrect, and lots of comic mileage from the first half of the movie comes from Jon Heder’s nice guy loser being completely unsuited for his rascally assignments and snagging the girl with his half-baked makeover, yet somehow moving to the top of Dr. P’s class. If this were a normal movie, audiences would get incensed about the ridiculousness of the final item in our last sentence, but in this movie, Dr. P gets incensed and proceeds to destroy Roger’s life step by step. The humour in second half of the movie proceeds from the ludicrousness of the matchup between Dr. P and Roger, between Billy Bob Thornton in major asshole mode and Jon Heder. It’s a very lopsided battle, like Bambi Meets Godzilla, which makes it such a joy to watch when the inept Roger actually gets his shots at his former mentor.

In fact, for all the tussling of alpha male Dr. P and “I can’t believe he topped the school for scoundrels” Roger over the attention of the girl who lives down the corridor, School For Scoundrels works best as a sort of oddball comedy between two warring characters, and not very well as a romantic comedy. And even though Ben Stiller and David Cross make cameo appearances here, they have much less impact than expected – either because of their underwritten parts or because the director has struck a rare comedy goldmine from the pairing of Heder and Thornton.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

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