SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Luis Guzman
screenplay by Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong
directed by Todd Phillips
starring Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher, Neal McDonough, Melissa Sagemiller
screenplay by Ron L. Brinkerhoff
directed by Andrew Davis
by Walter Chaw What the woefully, dreadfully, desperately unfunny School of Scoundrels has going for it is the casting of fetching Jacinda Barrett as the leading lady; what it squanders is the opportunity to present anything resembling intelligence or wit in favour of achingly uninsightful jabs at the gender rift and the presentation of idiot Jon Heder in exhibit, oh, about 'E' or 'F' by now, of how he has no known function. Billy Bob Thornton continues his blue W.C. Fields bit (next up, Mr. Woodcock), here as "Dr. P," the head of the titular finishing school that specializes in molding the losers and milquetoasts of the world into sunglasses-wearing assholes fond of comparing themselves to lions. His prize student is meter maid Roger (Heder), who, because the script demands it, transforms himself from a doofus into a doofus in a suit, finally mustering up the courage to ask out neighbour Amanda (Barrett). Inexplicably, she has all along been pining for this hermetic, feminized, saccharine troll--after all, what beautiful, smart, funny woman doesn't want to be dating someone with the looks of Napoleon Dynamite and the personality of a serial-killing child molester? Sarah Silverman is wasted (though given her track record, it could very well be that there's nothing left to waste) as Amanda's evil roommate, written with snarky commentary you'd think a perfect fit for her.
Alas, nothing jives in School for Scoundrels: not the assertion that black men are scary criminals and probably rapists and homosexuals; not the central love story involving the release of restaurant lobsters; and certainly not the denouement in which everything is instantly revealed and just as quickly forgiven. How something so derivative and appallingly written could have made it to fruition is a phenomenon at once wondrous and depressing. The picture is weak in every aspect from timing to performance, humiliating Todd Louiso and Michael Clarke Duncan and then choking on an awkward cameo by Ben Stiller, various balls-to-the-groin gags, and post-script cards for each of the characters that ring with the poetry of closet Dickensons from your local coffee shop's open mike night. I'm still trying to puzzle out why Dr. P has his students dress up as policemen in one trailer-spoiled sequence beyond an excuse for the punchline of one of them unwisely detonating a canister of mace in an elevator. With no character the slightest bit interesting (save the one who wants to choose as her lover either dumb or dumber, thus making her mentally unfit, if not actually a retarded object of pity), none of the situations plausible or funny, none of the sidekicks edifying, and none of the timing graceful, we're left with a colossal life-suck: a vortex, and another early-Fall candidate for worst of the year.
Surprisingly not a candidate for worst of the year is Andrew Davis's Coast Guard recruiting commercial The Guardian (which shares its title with a horror movie about a naked druid nanny), a by-the-numbers action picture that alternates action sequences and sage declarations with metronomic dedication. Kevin Costner is legendary "Rescue Swimmer" Ben Randall, who gets off on the wrong foot with hotshot recruit Jake (Ashton Kutcher, and what better casting would it have been to have Randall played by real-life Kutcher-rival Bruce Willis?) in the usual macho formula epic way before learning to trust and admire the young buck as the May/September version of himself. Daring water rescues are filmed with the force of a large budget (sub "fire rescues," "snow," "climbing," and so on for the lineage and future of this kind of flick), and, even better, with the semblance of coherence so sorely lacking in mainstream actioners nowadays. Costner by now seems comfortable settling into the grizzled saddle-bag portion of his career, the aging jock taking on a promising hatchling of Bull Durham fame into eternity--and, in truth, why not? Costner is excellent as a jock/ex-jock or cowboy and little else. The Guardian's appeal, such as it is, rests on his still-broad shoulders and thinning pate: a comfortable, congenial quality of not expecting much and getting exactly what you'd expect and not one portion larger. It's not good, but at least it doesn't make you want to poke your eyes out. Originally published: September 29, 2006.