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'Woodcock' could use more Billy Bob

Thornton feeding on the young is delightful. The rest of the movie ends at the premise.

September 14, 2007|John Anderson | Special to Newsday

That Americans worship their children only makes Billy Bob Thornton more deliciously, subversively funny as a tormenter of the young. He made them suffer in "The Bad News Bears," abused them in "Bad Santa" and is back in business as the nightmarish gym teacher of "Mr. Woodcock," a movie that commits sins of excess, except regarding Thornton. There's not nearly enough of him.

There is an abundance, however, of Seann William Scott as John Farley, the bestselling author of "Letting Go," a book about losing your past, who has become the idol of stretch-pants-wearing doughnut assassins across the country. He's also, as we see via amusing flashbacks, a former student of Woodcock, whose favorite lines were "Take a lap," "Lose the asthma" and, as regards Farley, "You're a disgrace to fat, gelatinous little kids the world over."

That John should return home to find his mother (Susan Sarandon) dating Woodcock becomes a trauma of biblical, professional and Freudian proportions.

Director Craig Gillespie keeps things moving at a brisk clip as John makes an ass of himself, abandoning his book tour to come home to Forest Meadow, Neb., and receive the key to the city. Once there, he not only discovers Woodcock nuzzling his mother but being honored too, with everything from the Educator of the Year Award to a Woodcock Pizza at the local parlor. "What's next?" asks fellow Woodcock-hater Nedderman (Ethan Suplee). "The Hitler Calzone?"

John doesn't let go of his past. He embraces it, to sometimes comic but more often humiliating effect. Amy Poehler is perfectly, perhaps inevitably, cast as John's vodka-guzzling book publicist, who berates him from afar for missing his "Oprah" opportunity.

This is one of those movies that hasn't anywhere to go once it's set up its premise, save toward greater embarrassment for all concerned, although we do get a glimpse into Woodcock's past: Bill Macy appears as Woodcock's poisonously belligerent father, who makes his son seem like the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps a prequel? "Mr. Woodcock II" could get into the roots of Woodcockian misery. It would be hilarious.


"Mr. Woodcock." MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.

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