Roger is a decent but gentle guy put upon by the aggressive world around him. He's a sensitive soul but one with such little personality that even the Big Brother program dumps him—after his 'Little Brother' finds him a dullard. This so greatly affects sweet Roger that he breaks down on the street and cries, to the mortification of the program director Ian ( David Cross ) . Ian takes pity on Roger and gives him the number of the tough, mysterious Mr. P ( Billy Bob Thornton ) , who runs a class for classic underachievers. Mr. P promises the assembled group of nerds—who has each forked over $5,000 in cash—to toughen them up and give them the confidence they're missing. That's the set-up for School for Scoundrels, the formulaic, intermittently funny new film from Todd Phillips that's about two steps from the frat-house comedy, Old School and the smirking Starsky & Hutch.
As Roger ( who works as a meter reader for the police department ) continues with the assertiveness-training classes and begins to toughen up, he becomes aware that Mr. P is also vying for the girl of his dreams, the pretty brunette Amanda ( Jacinda Barrett ) who lives down the hall with her nasty roommate/sidekick Becky ( Sarah Silverman ) . A comedic game of one-upmanship between the two ensues, with plenty of sight gags aimed squarely at the groin area tossed in—as expected.
This is not a good time to be meek or bashful in the movies, as these characters can count on scene after scene of the most extreme humiliation. ( The more extreme it is, the more the audience is cued to laugh at these human Wile E. Coyotes. ) This is not a new formula for the movies—with Scoundrels itself being a remake of a much-funnier 1960 British comedy—but maybe it just seems that audience's appetites for these pictures have never been this strong. One thing is clear: Straight guys sure do love seeing geeks, freaks, nerds and nellies getting the stuffing knocked out of them. It goes without saying that much of the comedy in these pictures is based on an implicit homophobia—an understanding that the audiences for these movies won't mind a high quotient of fag jokes and 'hilarious' set-ups that place the two male leads in unknowing but compromising positions ( with the nauseating Without a Paddle coming to mind immediately ) .
To its credit, School for Scoundrels resists this cheap shot but that's not to say that writer-director Phillips has dialed down the crudeness of his previous movies or that the implied homophobia isn't still right there on the tip of Mr. P's tongue ( which it is, and Phillips finally can't help tossing in a 'hilarious' subplot centering on gay rape ) . What saves the picture is casting Heder in the lead role—and much of that has more to do with the audience's enormous identification with the actor than with his performance. No matter what variety of roles this young actor takes on, he's going to carry the ghost of Napoleon Dynamite around with him. And why not? Napoleon—with his '80s pirate boots and pants, emergency phone calls for Chap Stick to brother Kip and his surprising dance moves—made such an indelible impression on audiences that the photo alone of the gape-mouthed, frizzy-haired nebbish on the poster was enough to sell the picture ( just as the squeaky-clean one of Steve Carell for The 40 Year Old Virgin did ) .
But the tremendous goodwill that Heder engenders will only carry him so far. His everyman looks—the toothy grin, shaggy-dog haircut and slacker slouch—won't be enough to differentiate him from the herd for long as a career playing Napoleon would have ( though that, too, might have finally worn thin ) . On his own, Heder is not a particularly funny guy—something that will have to change. He doesn't have the madman's gleam in the eye of a Robin Williams; the gift for physical comedy of Will Ferrell or other SNL alumni of his ilk; the versatility of Carell; or even the I'll-do-anything-for-a-laugh zaniness of lesser comics like Rob Schneider. At the moment Heder is perhaps where Paul Reubens, with his acknowledged desire to rid himself of Pee Wee Herman, would have liked to have found himself after Pee Wee's Big Adventure back in 1985—away from his signature character with the audience still in tow. For now, that's enough to give a pass to a weak picture like School for Scoundrels.
Everything that School for Scoundrels isn't The Puffy Chair is. This gentle slacker comedy ( in its second week at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema ) —which is the first feature from the Duplass brothers ( Jay directs, Mark writes and stars ) —had me laughing from the get-go. The movie, a road-trip picture, finds another put-upon lead: Josh, the guy who has given up touring with the band he loves for the prickly girlfriend Emily ( Kathryn Aselton ) he maybe loves. A car trip to deliver a birthday present, the purple velour chair of the title, will help him decide.
Setting out on the journey, Josh decides to stop in and visit his brother, the 'natural, deep and real' Rhett ( Rhett Wilkins ) , who guilts Josh and Emily into taking him along for the ride. As the trio approach their destination, tensions are heightened as things go from bad to worse. The punchy scenes are sparked by the sparring between Josh and Emily which, as in real life, goes from flippant to deadly seriousness in the blink of an eye. The dialogue has the freshness of a John Cassavetes picture ( such as Husbands ) and the performances of Duplass and Aselton in the leads have the same natural quality that Cassavetes and wife Gena Rowlands brought to their screen pairings.
This is a winning debut from a talented duo worth watching.
Check out a Knight at the Movies overview of upcoming October theatrical and DVD releases this week with hosts Amy Matheny and Peter Mavrik on www.windycityqueercast.com . You can also find archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Feedback can be left at the latter Web site.