None of “School for Scoundrels” is plausible, exactly, but if you can accept the premise of a man teaching wimpy guys to be more aggressive — i.e., to be jerks who lie their way into women’s beds — then you can probably buy most of what happens. At least until the last 20 minutes or so, when it goes off the rails entirely and Ben Stiller is plotting revenge against the man who raped him. The movie intends this to be comical.
Forget Stiller, though; he only has a cameo. Our stars in this fratboy fracas are Jon Heder (still playing Napoleon Dynamite) and Billy Bob Thornton (still playing the guy who swears a lot and doesn’t give a crap about anything). Heder plays Roger, a timid New York City parking enforcement officer who pines for Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), the pretty Australian girl who lives in his building but whom he can never work up the courage to talk to. On a tip from a friend, he signs up for a class taught by Dr. P (Thornton) in which the spineless participants are taught how to woo women: lie to them, pretend to relate to them, do things to impress them, and so on.
Roger takes to this better than you’d think — better than he should, actually, which is a flaw in the film (written by Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong and directed by Phillips). Dr. P gives everyone pagers and says that when they get an alert, they are to start a confrontation with someone immediately. Roger has an idiot coworker who deserves a fight, and Roger gives him one — much too well for someone who the film has already spent so much effort establishing is a complete wuss.
But the film has to get Roger’s jerk capabilities up to speed quickly in order to move to Act 2, wherein Dr. P finds his most gifted student and sets out to undermine him. This is either to spur the student on to even greater heights of excellence by providing him with competition, or it’s because Dr. P is just an a-hole. Whatever the reason, Dr. P and Roger are soon fighting for Amanda’s affections in a most juvenile and petty fashion.
There are laughs scattered throughout the production, many of them reliant upon the comedy inherent in a man being hit in the crotch. Heder and Thornton are both doing the same shtick they’ve been doing regularly the past few years, but they do it well, though Heder’s comparative lack of experience shows through in certain key scenes.
It needs to be more tightly edited, though. I’m talking five seconds here and there. I lost count of how many scenes reached logical, smart endings … and then lingered several seconds longer while someone still in the scene wandered around and continued acting.
Curious, too, is the film’s strange sense of humor. There’s dialogue like this:
“You want a biscotti?”
“I don’t blame you. They’re addictive.”
It’s obviously meant to be a throwaway joke, the kind of thing you chuckle at while the scene moves forward. But it’s not funny. And the film is full of that kind of thing, odd dialogue that has the shape of comedy but no actual comedic content.
Todd Phillips’ work as writer and director has always been uneven (cf. “Old School” and “Starsky & Hutch”), but this is his most uneven yet. The nonsensical finale, where everyone figures out the truth about everyone else through only the tiniest clues, and in which airplane security is apparently still in its 20th-century stages, is just the capper on a fitfully amusing but overall unsatisfying film.
C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; )