If you watch a lot of daytime television you’ll often hear the phrase “tough love” bandied about. Dr. Phil suggests using it when dealing with difficult kids. Judge Mathis dispenses it in his courtroom everyday from noon until one pm. Usually it involves humiliating someone until they are bullied into behaving the way their tormentors want them to.
It is also the method that Billy Bob Thornton employs in his secret School for Scoundrels night classes. He takes self-described losers and nerds who have never had any luck with women—or anything else for that matter—and transforms them from meek to chic using a toxic mix of degradation, threats and manipulation as confidence building tools. Think of him as Miss. Manners without the Miss or the Manners.
At the top of his class is the slack-jawed Roger, played by Jon Heder, who, once again riffs on his listless character from Napoleon Dynamite. When Heder successfully uses some of Thornton’s techniques to woo his beautiful neighbor Amanda, he learns the hard way that the pupil must never eclipse the master. Thornton hatches an elaborate plot to steal Amanda and humiliate Roger.
Based on a 1960 British comedy of the same name, School for Scoundrels falls a little flat. Heder is so good as the non-descript Roger that he barely registers on screen. Roger’s problem is that he is forgettable, and I fear that may be Heder’s Achilles’ heel as well.
Billy Bob Thornton fares a bit better as the confidence building con man, but he isn’t doesn’t seem as invested in bringing out this character’s truly despicable side as he has been in the past. In Bad Santa there seemed to be no limits to how deep he would mine the depravity, and even in the more family friendly Bad News Bears from last year he plumbed the depths to create a the kind of skuzzy guy who would wear a t-shirt that reads “She Looked Better Last Night” to Little League practice. In School for Scoundrels he pulls of a few good laughs, but it feels like we’re getting the watered down version of Thornton’s patented low life character.