“There are two kinds of men in the world,” sneers Billy Bob Thornton to the dweebs, sadsacks and milquetoasts that make up his self-styled School For Scoundrels. “Those who run shit, like me. And those who eat shit, like you. ”Actually, Billy, there’s a third category: those who make shit. And on the evidence of this limp reprise of the 1960 Terry-Thomas Britcom, that’s where you’ll find director Todd Phillips and his Road Trip and Old School writing partner, Scot Armstrong.
It must have looked a riot on paper: a raucous face-off between Napoleon Dynamite’s nerd Jon Heder and Bad Santa, the former’s put-upon parking attendant seeking advice from the latter’s foulmouthed life-coach on how to grow a pair, only to find himself battling his mentor for the affections of his pretty Aussie neighbour (Poseidon’s Jacinda Barrett using her own accent for once). Somehow, though, the comic clash between geeky Jon and sarky Billy fails to strike the expected sparks, the low-wattage combo of weak gags and flabby pacing turning what should have been a hilarious game of cat-and-mouse one-upmanship into a predictable roundelay of mutual mean-spiritedness.
What highlights there are rest in the snappier first half – Thornton’s slick predator dispensing chick-pulling advice like “lie, lie and lie some more” and “no compliments ever” or setting his wimpy pupils sadistic tasks of redundant machismo designed to rouse their dormant manhoods. No sooner has Heder proved his mettle by besting BB’s Man Friday Michael Clarke Duncan at paintball, however, than the movie loses its way. Not even bitchy interjections from Barrett’s catty flatmate Sarah Silverman and a spiteful tennis match lifted directly from Robert Hamer’s black-and-white original manage to halt its downwards trajectory.
In a film conspicuously short of memorable set-pieces this latter sequence proves an especially damp squib. The real problem, though, is that the leads seem stuck on autopilot, trading clowny pratfalls and acerbic wisecracks with such a lack of enthusiasm you can almost sense their disengagement. Having cornered the market in well-heeled sleaze in everything from The Ice Harvest to Love Actually, Thornton at least brings a polished ease to the proceedings that ensures he’s watchable. But you fear for Heder’s future if the only weapons he has in his laugh-getting arsenal are lanky awkwardness and a spaced-out delivery.
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Ben Stiller cameo apart, something's wrong when a proven comedic property and two well-matched stars can scarcely raise a titter.