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School For Scoundrels

What do you do when you don’t know how to woo the woman of your dreams? You call someone like Hitch. If you didn’t see the Will Smith romantic comedy, understand that Hitch is the guy who will show you the moves you need to win the heart of your beloved. If your goal is a little less lofty and you’ll settle for someone who will just help you land a date, you need the School for Scoundrels.

Roger (John Heder) falls into that second category. His job as a mini-cart driving New York meter maid earns him a lot of confrontation that he is completely incapable of handling. He owns an impressive collection of self-help books and videos, none of which seem to be working. A problem with chronic panic attacks prevents him from making a good impression on his apartment neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) but provides plenty of opportunity for antagonizing from her sarcastic roommate (Sarah Silverman). The last straw comes when he is rejected by the third kid in a row in the Big Brother program. To sum it up: Roger is a total loser and he just can’t take it anymore.

This kind of role is nothing new for Heder. At the risk of sounding trite, it feels like he’s once again fallen back on parts of his Napoleon Dynamite style. Roger could be how Napoleon would turn out if he moved to New York after graduating high school. It works in Heder’s favor though. The same quirky qualities, nerdy nasality and awkward confidence that made Napoleon such an unsuspecting hero also make Roger the kind of guy you want to root for.

His friend Ian (David Cross) recognizes Roger’s loserdom and offers the phone number of someone who once helped him out. When Roger calls the number he finds himself enrolled in a mysterious and abusive course for the socially inept. The unorthodox program, taught by the greasy “Dr. P” (Billy Bob Thornton) and his violent assistant Lesher (Michael Clark Duncan), promises to take each loser and turn him into a roaring lion, able to take what he wants at will. For Roger, it’s simple: he just wants to win Amanda’s heart.

Early along Roger displays a talent for the qualities Dr. P is trying to instill. His big breakthrough comes in the form of a victory over the terrifying Lesher during a particularly brutal (but absolutely hilarious) no-holds-barred paint ball battle. Ian warns Roger not to get too cocky though. Dr. P has a penchant for putting the screws to his top students, seeking to break them by taking from them what they want most. Sure enough, Dr. P begins moving in on Amanda and the result is a comedic battle of wills between the doc and Roger that pushes the limits right to the bitter end.

Thornton and Heder have a great competitive chemistry that echoes the classic combination of Michael Caine and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. School for Scoundrels never quite reaches the same level of wit, but replaces it with more slapstick humor and a riotous supporting cast that includes Todd Louiso, Horatio Sanz and Ben Stiller.

The comedy only really fails during the brief times it wanders without commitment into the realm of the seriously vulgar. It’s the type of humor that only works when the whole story plunges to that level. In this movie it’s too out of place and falls flat against the wittier comic bits. The rest of the film is surprisingly entertaining for something released during the September doldrums. A pleasant “back to school” gift for all you college bound Heder fans, this will give you smiles enough to see you through to Thanksgiving.