- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

Talk about your home run pitches. Take Billy Bob Thornton, the “Bad Santa” himself, and cast him as a teacher for men who need a double dose of scoundrel.

His A student? Jon Heder, better known as “Napoleon Dynamite.”

So why aren’t we laughing at the new “School for Scoundrels?”

Even the best premises need some meat on their bones, and “Scoundrels” is all gristle. We’ve given up on belly laughs by the film’s halfway point, but it only gets more squirrelly as it limps to the finish line. Mr. Thornton acts as if he fell hard for the pitch, too, but there’s little else for him to do here beyond preserving his bizarro cred.

Mr. Heder is Roger, a parking enforcement agent who spends his nights poring over self-help books. Life is a series of insults for poor Roger — even his designated “Little Brother” in the Big Brother program ditched him to find a better role model.

A sympathetic pal (a grossly underused David Cross) suggests Roger call a number that just might change his life. It’s for a secret school headed by Dr. P (Mr. Thornton) where the lessons involve men reclaiming their masculinity. Or something like that.

The classes never really coalesce into anything solid, either comically or dramatically speaking, and this is where the first leak in the dam springs loose.

Roger takes the lessons eagerly and puts them to use by asking an adorable Aussie named Amanda (former “Real World” cast member Jacinda Barrett) for a date. Amanda appears to like Roger for who he is, but that’s a lesson “Scoundrels” has little interest in pursuing. Besides, she’s not really a person, she’s simply “the beautiful girl” upon which our hero’s happiness hinges.

Just when it looks like Roger’s confidence is building, Dr. P steps in. It seems the doctor doesn’t like it when his students do too well, and he tries to woo Amanda for himself.

Whatever low-grade mirth “Scoundrels” managed to achieve vanishes as the story gets thornier by the minute. It’s the same kind of false posturing that wrecked “Anger Management” a few years back. “Scoundrels” screenwriters are so busy being clever they forget that every unbelievable character feint makes us care less about the truth.

One-time Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile”) is temporarily amusing as Dr. P’s muscle, and a famous cameo does little to prevent the final reel debacle.

We’ll love Mr. Thornton in perpetuity for “Sling Blade” and think of him every time we crustily clear our throats a la Karl, but it’s not nearly enough for this “School” to earn a passing grade.

*1/2

TITLE: “School for Scoundrels”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, crude and sexual content and some violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Mr. Phillips and Scot Armstrong based on the books by Stephen Potter (“One-Upmanship” and “Lifemanship” books).

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.schoolforscoundrels-movie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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