I’ve never found a Todd Phillips movie particularly funny. Most of them also have structural problems. School for Scoundrels fits into both of these categories. It opens with some promise, which only makes the final two-thirds feel like even more of a waste. If it had actually been about the “School for Scoundrels” of the title, perhaps it would have been worthwhile. It’s wasted opportunity.
Roger (Jon Heder) is a loser. Or, more correctly, he’s a step below “loser” on the totem pole. He pays the bills by handing out parking tickets — which apparently pays well enough for him to drop $5,000 just like that — he doesn’t understand how to talk to, well, anyone, but especially his neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). He volunteers at a big brother program, but has had three children ditch him. He’s given a number to call, at which point he is told to bring the aforementioned money to a certain location, and that’s it. Apparently he’s such a loser that he doesn’t even understand the definition of the word “scam.”
As it turns out — because this is a movie — there is no scam. There is a class taught by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thorton) about how one can better himself as a person. Presumably the class is only available to men, because there isn’t a single woman in the class. Dr. P initially comes across as the type of drill instructor personality who might just be able to whip these lads into shape. At this moment in the film, directly following our introduction to Dr. P, I thought I might be in for something that’s going to be really funny.
School for Scoundrels doesn’t want to be about this classroom setting. It decides instead to have Dr. P set his sights on Amanda just to assert himself as the top dog. A battle of will ensues between the teacher and the student. Nothing fresh comes of this; they attempt to one-up the other a couple of times, all while not letting anyone outside of the classroom know that they previously knew each other. The “school” must remain a secret, presumably because nothing looks more sad than a grown man going to a class in order to gain more confidence.
The film isn’t done completely removing itself from its initial idea, either. At the end, we get a slap-dash attempt at hammering in a rom-com. Or, at least, the ending to one. A character runs through an airport in hopes of getting to another character before he or she takes off — and it comes down to the last second because that’s how these things work. It’s another change in direction that is very noticeable and doesn’t work very well — in this case because the rest of the film wasn’t a romantic comedy.
I actually had fun for about the first twenty minutes of School for Scoundrels. It had everyone making fun of Jon Heder — a generally good idea — and it had a dark tone to the comedy. Later on, I didn’t even see it attempt a lot of jokes. There were some, but the sharpness was lost and it became more about the plot, which kept changing direction unnecessarily. The jokes got lost along the way.
The good critic would mention that School for Scoundrels is a remake of the British film from 1960. I haven’t seen that film, but I recommend taking the chance on it over this one anyway. There’s a very good chance it’ll be more worthwhile. If it isn’t, at least you can be a hipster and when your friends ask if you’ve seen School for Scoundrels, you can tell them that you say the British one, which many of them won’t know existed. You can educate them! That alone is makes it worth the time, doesn’t it? I mean, you like knowing things, don’t you?
Is it this obvious that I’m already pretty much out of things to say about this version of School for Scoundrels? Oh! Right. Rape gets made fun of. Dr. P has a right-hand-man, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), a very large person with a deep voice. Apparently, he rapes people. So if you hate seeing that subject treated like the butt-end of a joke, there’s another reason to dislike this movie. And it’s not even like it’s a one-time thing, either; it gets brought up three times, if memory serves.
Billy Bob Thorton works in his role. He’s often a pleasure to watch perform, and seeing him take pot-shots at Jon Heder was a lot of fun. If the film was just that — nothing more — for 90 minutes, it would have been better. Jon Heder plays the loser well, too. He was Napoleon Dynamite back when that film was relevant (hint: it never was), so if you wanted to see him made fun of for twenty minutes, start up School for Scoundrels and turn if off after that time. You’ll get some enjoyment out of that, at least.
School for Scoundrels is not a good movie after it changes direction, which is about twenty minutes in. It begins as a cynical movie whose target is Jon Heder’s loser character. It ends as a romantic comedy that forgot jokes belong in comedies. Billy Bob Thorton is fun to watch when he makes fun of people, but that’s about the only enjoyment I got out of it. Skip it and watch the original, if only to say that you’ve seen the original and unleash the hipster within. This concludes the first lesson of “School for Hipsters.”