There are two surprising things about “Mr. Woodcock.” One, it’s not full of sophomoric jokes about the title character’s name. Two, it’s actually not a bad movie, with enough scattered laughs to make it worth seeing. At matinee prices, anyway. At the cheap theater.
It is, unfortunately, one of those comedies where someone is obviously evil, mean, or obnoxious, yet only one person seems to realize it, while everyone else thinks he’s great. These things always frustrate me. It doesn’t help that in this case, the evil character never really gets the comeuppance he deserves. In fact, the Lone Voice of Reason character is punished for trying to expose him! Where’s the justice in that?!
But let me start over. The hapless victim is John Farley (Seann William Scott), now a successful self-help author but formerly a picked-on, overweight middle-schooler. He returns to his Nebraska hometown to accept an award and discovers that his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) is now dating Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) — the cruel and sadistic gym coach who made his life miserable so many years ago! What’s more, Woodcock is being honored by the town, too, as Educator of the Year. In what parallel universe a gym coach counts as an “educator,” I don’t know.
We see many of Woodcock’s particular offenses in flashbacks (with young John played by glum-faced Kyley Baldridge), and they are indeed both a) mean-spirited and b) funny. Billy Bob Thornton has played a sharp-tongued kid-hater about 11 times now, but there’s no denying he’s good at it, letting the caustic dialogue (written by newcomers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert) fall out of his mouth as if such hilarious cruelty were second nature to him.
The problem is, John never gives his mom any specifics about the horrible things Woodcock did to him. What about making him strip to his underwear and do pull-ups in front of everyone? You tell your mom the guy she’s dating did that to you when you were a kid, and I guarantee she at least asks the jerk some tough questions. She probably dumps him altogether. Yet all John does is stammer some vague “He’s no good!” assertions, so it’s no wonder Mom doesn’t take his side and ditch Woodcock. She figures he’s just being overprotective of dear ol’ Mom, the way you’d expect a young man to be.
(It’s worth noting that if he had told her these things when they happened, 13 years ago, she wouldn’t be dating Mr. Woodcock now because Mr. Woodcock would still be in prison.)
John’s renewed contact with his middle-school tormenter brings his insecurities back to the forefront, and he recruits an old buddy and fellow victim named Needleman (Ethan Suplee) to help bring Woodcock down. He also reconnects with a former crush, Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller), in a subplot so unnecessary that if you picked up the movie and shook it a little, the character would fall out and flutter gently to the floor.
The film was directed by first-timer Craig Gillespie, and then New Line sent it back for a few weeks of re-shoots by David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers,” “Shanghai Knights”), who gets a producer credit for his troubles. (The film’s originally scheduled release date: summer 2006!) Goodness knows which parts are Gillespie’s and which came from Dobkin. Amy Poehler, getting laughs as John’s business-minded alcoholic book-tour manager, feels like she’s in a different movie, never interacting with anyone but John — but she can’t be new, because I remember her from the film’s original trailer. Which I saw a year ago. In front of Thornton’s “School for Scoundrels.” Which was essentially the same movie.
A lot of the physical humor is surprisingly well done, Seann William Scott is affable now that he’s not playing jerky high school students anymore, and there’s good ol’ Billy Bob doing his well-honed shtick. You could do worse.
B- (1 hr., 29 min.; )