Studio: Dimension Films / The Weinstein Company
US Rating: Unrated
Film Length: 107 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/MPEG4AVC
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Plus, 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French 5.1
Subtitles: Optional English and Spanish subtitles
There are ‘losers’ and there are ‘nice guys’ and there are ‘losers that are nice guys’. Roger (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder) is the latter; an utterly pathetic, meek and dripping bag of boneless meat that seeks to earn a sense of personal worth by reading the obvious wisdom of others in self-help books. After a run of bad luck that reduces his self-esteem to the value of a fortune cookie, Roger is given a recommendation to join a class to help him out. He is not told what the class is about, only that it will help him. When he shows up, he and a rather large group of equally flimsy souls are ceremoniously disparaged and humiliated. Class has begun.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Dr P, the brutal ‘grow a pair or get out’ teacher. When Roger begins to do well in the class, Dr P begins to pursue the girl Roger is interested in, sparking a war of pranks and low-blows that quickly escalate. The Dr P character is really the tent pole of the film. Some of the ferocious things he says, while obnoxious, aren’t always far from the mark; but the perverse flippancy that oozes from him as he cuts down loser after loser with insidious disrespect, end up pushing him over the line.
Jon Heder is pretty good in this role, playing a character that has shades of the Dynamite role, but is different enough not to be a retread. He is a likeable actor and believable as a nerd with little to no confidence or backbone. David Cross (Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development) has a small role, as does the very talented Sarah Silverman, as Becky, the rude best friend of Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) with whom Roger has a romantic interest. Both are great to see here, especially Silverman who has such a unique persona that she just eats up the screen.
Director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips knows how to create pathetic in human form. In fact, he seems to enjoy making his protagonist start out just as sad and pathetic as possible without them becoming piteous caricatures. But they do come close. For School for Scoundrels, he and co-writer Scot Armstrong decided to pit the loser against the ‘lion’ and see what happens. It’s a good premise, especially when you have Billy Bob Thornton playing the sour and objectionable ‘lion’. But as good as the idea may seem for comedy, a few problems arise.
The most obvious issue is one of the films most enjoyable aspects, the casting of Mr. Thornton. He has some very caustic and funny lines, but they are the kind of lines he has been delivering in his last few movies; probably because he has been playing variations of the same character. When you could easily switch the characters he played in the underrated Ice Harvest or the baseball coach Morris Buttermaker (minus the alcohol) from Bad News Bears, it may be time to try something new!
The second problem I had with this film is pretty much the same one I have had with the last two Todd Phillips films (Old School and Starskey & Hutch, the funny doesn’t always work; the jokes don’t always go anywhere. Scenes find themselves drifting, with an ‘okay’ joke being the spotlight and they rarely hold up under that kind of focus. This issue is most likely exacerbated by the fact that the writers clearly lapped up the chance to right for the verbally abusive Dr P. So when he is not in a scene, they tend to be a little flat and dry.
To the Director’s credit, School for Scoundrels is a beautifully lit and wonderfully shot film. It appears that Todd Phillips has a good eye and should very well consider weightier subject matter, something a few flights of stairs up from this kind of low-brow, adolescent comedy.
Also of note is the score by Christophe Beck, which is quite exceptional for a film like this.
There are many times when School for Scoundrels looks wonderful. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the vibrant colors and extremely clean transfer are very sharp indeed. The crisp clarity at times, notably on a couple of close ups of Billy Bob and his freshly shaved face are outstanding. A real delight. Not perfect, but a high quality transfer.
Comedies are rarely reference material when it comes to showing off what the crown of speakers that make up your home theater can do. School for Scoundrels doesn’t change that; solid but unremarkable. This HD DVD comes with a few audio choices, both Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD as well as a French 5.1 track. Adequate best describes the audio. I did want to say, however, that there are a number of scenes where the film has failed to pay attention to the syncing of reverse action shots with the dialogue. Scenes where the character speaking is not facing the camera but you can still tell when they are speaking or their mouths are forming certain words. The sync is off. While not a problem with the audio, per se, it is one of those things that seems a little lazy on the part of the filmmakers.
The special features are MPEG2 with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.
3 Alternate Ending – (4:04) – Not a terrible alternate ending but not nearly as strong as the one chosen. It doesn’t try for the funny as much as isn’t constructed that well either.
Gag Reel (2:09) – There are a couple of outtakes that help you crack a smile, but overall, not much to find here.
The Making of you Didn’t See on TV (19:28) – One of the more entertaining ‘Making of's' I have seen, never once trying to actually be a making of. It’s quirky and funny and features the actors and directors basically finding funny ways to talk about the film without actually saying much that is real. Sarah Silverman is as funny as ever, pulling off the innocent sarcastic, tongue in cheek persona. The highlight for me, however, is when Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder have a brief discussion in their respective ‘Sling blade’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ characters. Just great!
Feature Commentary With Writer/Director Todd Phillips and Writer Scot Armstrong – This is a packed commentary from the writing duo. At times they sound a bit like a couple of their characters from the film but provide some interesting anecdotal information. One interesting fact shared was how they choose to write, picking an actor that they want to work with, in this case Billy Bob, and writing around that. Explanation, it seems, for why the character they wrote wasn’t much a deviation from Mr. Thornton’s other recent comedic incarnations.
They don’t spend much time during their discussion deconstructing the scenes, but it's still a good commentary.
I laughed at School for Scoundrels, but not as much as I would have liked. Billy Bob is good, but since I loved his Bad Santa, Bad News Bears and Ice Harvest ‘sour’ kind of funny, it’s no surprise that I would find a variation of those characters entertaining. The rest of the cast are suitable for their roles, with enough quirky or nerdy eccentricities to pull them off. One likeable character actor Luis Guzman shows up briefly as Rogers' boss in a great little role.
Ultimately, School for Scoundrels isn’t brave enough to pull off the big laughs. It hints at better things but doesn’t deliver. Even Ben Stiller feels a little wasted here, turning up as a failed member of a previous Dr P class. I could watch it again but somehow, when I do, I will be reminded of just how average the whole affair is.
Note: The Unrated version is 108 minutes compared with 100 minutes for the theatrical cut.>