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Nothing's too silly inside this `School'

September 29, 2006|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

The comedy "School for Scoundrels," about a victimized, love-struck New York meter maid (Jon Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite") who gets tutored in jerky alpha male-ness, may not be as devilishly enjoyable as its title suggests, but it's by no means like waiting for the reprieve of an end-of-class bell, either. Loosely based on a 1960 British comedy, this is a modest education-of-a-punching-bag entertainment with a kind of breezily rude compatibility -- a hallmark of sorts for both co-writer/director Todd Phillips ("Road Trip," "Starsky & Hutch") and the wonderful actor assigned to play the self-help instructor from hell, Billy Bob Thornton.

Last year, audiences responded merrily to a similar comic setup in which the adventures of Steve Carell's hapless sexual neophyte led to sparkling, incisive relationship humor in "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," but this movie's intentions are more safely in the region of: laugh here, laugh here, fist pump when Heder gets his revenge, and so on.

That's not to say there aren't pleasures when a formula works. What's almost refreshing about Phillips' approach to comedy -- there's a reason he made a movie called "Old School" -- is that he and co-writer Scot Armstrong like the classically unfettered fun of a silly bit played to the hilt. For example, the mealy-mouthed charges of Thornton's Dr. P getting a quick lesson in the cruelty of paintball is undeniably funny, as is the crosscutting montage showing Roger (Heder) and classmates in their everyday lives working up the nerve to pick insanely self-destructive fights with bullies and thugs.

Needless to say, personality breakdown is inevitably more amusing than the confidence-building a happy ending requires, which means Thornton's villainous drill sergeant is the film's real laugh weapon. Heder's Ichabod Crane shtick may make him Hollywood's favorite new point-and-laugh target, but it's the "Sling Blade" actor's emergence in recent years as a comedy star, playing hilariously brittle, insult-wielding satyrs in sardonic corkers such as "Bad Santa" and "The Bad News Bears" that's become the real master seminar in scoundrel-hood. In a Heder/Thornton matchup, you're not altogether sure you want to see teach lose.


`School for Scoundrels'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content and some violence

An MGM/Dimension Films/Weinstein Co. release. Director Todd Phillips. Screenplay Phillips and Scot Armstrong. Producers Phillips, Daniel Goldberg, J. Geyer Kosinski. Director of photography Jonathan Brown. Editors Leslie Jones, Daniel Schalk. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

In general release.

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