Based on the 1960 film THE SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRESL OF HOW TO WIN WITHOUT ACTUALLY CHEATING!, which was, in turn, very loosely based on the 18th century play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, THE SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS never deviates for a moment from the textbook arc for tales such as these. Loser at life, love, and career discovers a mentor who can lead him to the promised land. He follows that advice. Charts some success, but ultimately becomes disillusioned with the mentor and the sort of life plan he advocates. He triumphs in the end by finding a better way that allows him to still be true to himself while staking a claim in ci-mentioned promised land. Now, the thing about formula films is that they can succeed even when the outcome, here telegraphed from the opening credits, is never in doubt. It’s when everyone involved decides to rely on the formula to carry the film instead of, say, clever writing. And that’s where this film has gone so very, very wrong despite a promising beginning and a terrific performance from Jon Heder as our lovable loser.
Heder is Roger, a young man who faces life’s vicissitudes by passing out cold, be it a confrontation that ends in theft, gunfire, and humiliation at his job handing out parking tickets in New York City, or his attempts to impress Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), the pretty girl next door that turn out much the same way, less the felonies. Life isn’t just passing him by, it’s stomping his guts in it desire to leave him behind. When he bombs out of the Big Brother program for the third time, a compassionate soul clues him in on a top secret class that will help him transcend his wimpdom. But this is no supportive, nurturing environment. The instructor, Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), rages against his class with all the vitriol that life itself has spat at them. This is tough love of the severest sort, starting with tongue lashings spewed with a coolly vicious delivery by Thornton and working up to physical confrontations, the art of seduction that has nothing to do with romance, and a challenge for the heart of the lovely Amanda.
For the first 15 minutes, this is pure gold. Heder has a fine nobility to his terminal loserness that isn’t undermined by softness. So when he’s told to pick a fight in his quest for macho status, and he does, it’s as much a blow for justice against the office bully as it is a homework assignment. He is earnest without self-conscious neuroses, taking a fall with the same awkward grace that he tries to interest Amanda in the documentary he’s seen about her native Australia. Thornton, like the film, starts well. You can almost smell the contempt he feels for his eager students. Alas, he comes across less well when pitching woo at Amanda, retaining a cocky dash of smarminess that would send sensible women reaching for their pepper spray. It’s at this point pretty much everything goes south. The loopy energy dissipates, and the script scuttles around, randomly tossing ideas around as though it had been edited with dull pinking shears, and generally killing time until the denouement, but never catching the same sense of absurdity of playing innocence against cynicism that so lit up the beginning. Ben Stiller’s extended cameo as a former student whose brush with Dr. P. drove him share a rundown house in upstate New York with a horde of cats further drags things down with a performance that plays like a half-hearted smirk.
THE SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS proves once again that execution is everything. It’s just that none of us need that lesson.