Bad education

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Rated 2.0

Jon Heder continues to prove he’s no leading man, and Billy Bob Thornton repeats himself in School for Scoundrels, a rather drab, pointless movie. Wanting to be some sort of dig at self-help classes and inspirational coaching, it’s just a bland retread of nerd movies.

Heder plays Roger, a traffic cop prone to panic attacks. His uniform and money are stolen on the job after he passes out during a confrontation. Roger has a crush on Amanda, a beautiful Australian girl (played by the charming Jacinda Barrett—and she’s actually Australian!) in his building, but he has no courage to ask her out. He tries to do charity work as a Big Brother, but the kids keep requesting somebody other than him. When a buddy (the great David Cross, pretty much wasted here) notices his sorry state, Roger’s given a phone number to call and told that his life can be changed.

Roger makes the call and finds himself enrolled in a class where mean bastard teacher Dr. P (Thornton) intends to make him and a bunch of goofy misfits into tenacious lions. Thornton is in Bad Santa, evil dickweed mode once again, and while it’s something he does quite well, the material is weak and doesn’t justify him choosing to go down this same path. We’re talking about one of the most versatile actors out there, and he’s been averaging one “asshole” role a year since 2003’s Bad Santa. Time to play Jesus or something along those lines.

Dr. P likes to insult his students, terrorize them with his menacing sidekick (Michael Clarke Duncan) and give them Fight Club type assignments, like ordering them to start a confrontation with someone after their beeper goes off. None of it is very funny, and the presence of unfunny personas such as Horatio Sanz doesn’t help. There are no surprises in scenarios like a paintball competition and Dr. P demanding that his students wear shades all of the time. The film feels like a rerun.

When Roger starts to go places with Amanda and proves himself the most promising of the goofy bunch, Dr. P ups the ante by going after his girl, masquerading as a surgeon. This part of the plot is totally ludicrous, as if Roger couldn’t convince Amanda that Dr. P is a fraud. (Take her to the class!) The film makes too many outrageous leaps, yet it tries to maintain a realistic tone that just doesn’t jibe.

Heder hems and haws trying to make something out of his misbegotten role. No doubt, the guy was great as Napoleon Dynamite, and he was amusing in his bit part with Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven. Here, he just doesn’t fit the bill or provide anything engaging enough to justify his casting. His best bet seems to be caricatures like Napoleon or supporting parts. He just doesn’t cut it as the center of this movie. There are supporting players all around him, including Cross, who seem more deserving of his role.

This is a movie that can’t give the likes of Thornton, Cross and Sarah Silverman (who plays Amanda’s roommate) any legitimate laughs. These folks are funny just standing around, yet they don’t get a single giggle this time out. That’s quite the accomplishment when you really think about it. Only Ben Stiller, in a small cameo role, gets a couple of laughs as a former Dr. P student turned reclusive cat man.

Director Todd Phillips, who quit his Borat gig to helm this bore, brings none of the anarchic spirit of his earlier films (Road Trip, Old School) to this party. His work here is as underwhelming and pedestrian as his Starsky & Hutch. The guy is officially in a rut. He’s allegedly working on a script for Old School 2 in hopes that Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn will sign on. Cross your fingers and pray, Todd.