Review: ‘School for Scoundrels’

Napoleon Dynamite vs. Bad Santa, and it’s just as funny as the previews let on.

Roger (Jon Heder) is New York City meter maid who suffers panic attacks during confrontations. Afraid to offend anyone while still managing to put off everyone, a buddy gives him the number to a man named Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) who runs a secret class to turn prey into predators. When Roger proves himself to be star pupil of the class, Dr. P decides to up the ante and show Roger who the Alpha Male in the class really is.

The setup is classic, but what makes this remake of the 1960s British film work on the American side of the Atlantic is timing and execution. Remember when Brad Pitt gave homework assignments to start fights in Fight Club? Now imagine that for the most non-confrontational person possible! Civilized people avoid confrontation by maintaining the illusion of superiority, but as Dr. P points out, it isn’t the biggest or the strongest that becomes the “King of the Jungle” but rather the King who’s willing to take the jungle for himself unchallenged.

Predictably, all this is taken to an extreme, but in the second act, the film has to rest on the backs of its polar opposite stars, Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Header vs. Billy Bob “Bad Santa” Thorton. Heder, as in Dynamite and more recently in The Benchwarmers, looks and plays freaky unsure geek, but for the first time we see him start to emerge as a leading man and, if such a thing were possible, hold his own against a very ill-tempered Thorton. The sheer sass that Heder shows toward Thorton is enough to give audience members their own panic attacks, and to see Heder come out on top through sheer will is nothing short of inspirational.

No one will be pitching award nominations through the filmmakers windows for this, so the script wisely milks its material then quickly winds down to its conclusion before anyone can say they were bored or bothered. Throw in a cast of classmates made up of “SNL” and “Daily Show” alumni and Michael Clarke Duncan as Dr. P’s perverted sidekick, and School for Scoundrels has plenty of lighthearted laughs to keep audiences entertained one last weekend before the real scary movies come out. See it with someone you used pick on, then start a fight with them afterward.

(a two and a half skull out of four recommendation)

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