Todd Phillips just might be the best comedic director to appear on the scene for years. First he revived the road trip and frat-house comedy sub-genres (Road Trip and Old School respectively). Then he made one of those rare television to film adaptations that was actually pretty good (Starsky & Hutch). For his latest trick, School for Scoundrels, he manages to accomplish something that was previously thought impossible: getting a decent performance out of Jon Heder, an actor whose fifteen minutes of fame should have ended after Napoleon Dynamite.
We’ve all met the type – the guy who is just too nice for his own good. He goes through life with the best of intentions but, as a result of those intentions, winds up getting walked over by the world. Roger (Jon Heder) is that type of person. Roger is so nice that he even gets walked over by the nine-year old kid he’s supposed to be a Big Brother to. One of Roger’s friends takes pity on him and lets him know about a secret school that’ll teach him to toughen up a bit. But when Roger starts to gain confidence, his aggressive class instructor “Dr. P” (Billy Bob Thorton) decides to give Roger some competition for the love of his lady. What’s a nice guy to do?
I have to admit, Jon Heder has yet to impress me in any of the films up to now, and that includes the overhyped Napoleon Dynamite. As the opening credits revealed other disappointing comedic names (like Horatio Sanz) I became more concerned about what I was about to see. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. Writer/director Todd Phillips gives the actors a script that provides plenty of room to work. With this cast (Thorton excepted) that still might be a concern, but Phillips grooms excellent performances out of most, if not all, of the comedians. You actually can see Heder think things through as his character makes decisions. Incredible!
At the same time, it’s not fair to put all of the cast in the same group. There are some actors who would have given an excellent performance regardless of the director. Billy Bob Thorton and Sarah Silverman remain safely in familiar territory as they play roles they’ve taken on a dozen times before. Heck, Thorton could have looked at his character notes for Bad News Bears and Bad Santa and then gone on an alcoholic binge, the character is so familiar. Jacinda Barrett stands as the one true actress in the company (as opposed to the comedians that make up most of the supporting cast) and also could have shined regardless. Phillips puts both the experienced and inexperienced to work, however, and creates a really fun story.
The story is not just fun, but also carries some nice subtleties to it that add to the amusement instead of the over-the-top antics we typically see these days. The relationship between Dr. P’s aid, Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan) and some of the students in the school is hinted at enough to make things uncomfortable, but Phillips never puts it in the audience’s face. Even as Roger gains confidence, the process is not an overnight transformation, and it’s just as delightful to watch him fail in his attempts as it is to see him succeed.
Todd Phillips has convinced me that, in the world of comedy, he can do just about anything he sets his mind to. Too many other directors appear on the scene for a movie or two pushing big, gimmick-laden comedy that has no lasting power. Phillips has shown that he doesn’t need to stoop to bathroom humor or physical slapstick comedy for all his laughs (just for some of them) and that comedy can still be smart. While I stand by the idea that Jon Heder’s fifteen minutes of fame should be over, I could deal with him sticking around as long as he stays within reach of Phillips.
School for Scoundrels has been released in both its original theatrical cut and an unrated “Ballbuster Edition” of the film which runs seven minutes longer. What exactly that extra seven minutes entails I can’t say, since I didn’t see the original cut of the film. Guessing by the original’s PG-13 rating and some of the language in the version I saw, I’m guessing it’s just supplementary scenes that don’t really affect the story. Nothing felt extraneous while I watched the film though, so whatever is new is integrated well.
Both releases carry the same bonus materials: a commentary track featuring Phillips, an alternate ending, a gag reel, the, “making-of you didn’t see on television,” and the theatrical trailer. Overall, this is a mix of bonus materials ranging in quality.
Before I move specifically to the bonus features, I want to mention the disc carries the trailer for the Weinstein Company’s Fan Boys film, which tells the story of a group of Star Wars fans who attempt to steal a print of Episode I months before it comes out. If the trailer is any indication, this is going to be a brilliant movie and its placement on the School for Scoundrels DVD was equally brilliant, since the people who relate to Heder and the other nice guys probably make up part of the target market of the film. If you haven’t seen this trailer, go track it down. It’s worth the time.
Being so excited by that trailer, I had high hopes for the other material on the DVD. Unfortunately I was left disappointed by some of it. The gag reel in particular is pretty lackluster, showing clips of actors laughing mixed with some of the film’s physical comedy. When I hear the term “gag reel” I think about outtakes of actors messing up or fooling around. Very little of that is on this short featurette, and what does appear is just the result of fooling around or messing up, not the actual jokes themselves.
At first, the featurette looks pretty typical. In fact, despite the title saying you didn’t see it on television, it looks just like the finds of “behind the scenes” extended commercials you do see on TV. Instead, it turns out nobody took the featurette seriously. Cast members refer to this as their soon to be Academy winning role, Thorton compares the film to everything else he’s done in his career, and Sarah Silverman acknowledges her stereotypical role in the film. Best of all, however, we actually see what the cast did to keep themselves entertained between shots: conversations between Slingblade and Napoleon Dynamite. Honestly, that’s more than enough for any DVD’s contents.