Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Melissa Sagemiller
Having never actually experienced cranial surgery, I can’t make a truly informed decision in this matter, but I strongly suspect it could be no worse than sitting through Mr. Woodcock—a film in which the laughs never stop only because they never start. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so little. This umpteenth “comedy” based on the idea that nothing is funnier than watching Billy Bob Thornton play a thoroughgoing bastard is clearly aimed at viewers likely to emit a Beavis and Butthead-like chortle upon hearing the title.
Unless Mr. Woodcock exists for the sole purpose of making School for Scoundrels (2006) and Bad News Bears (2005) look like two of Thornton’s less embarrassing works, I can’t imagine any possible justification for its existence. Here Thornton plays Mr. Woodcock, a humorless, sadistic gym coach, whose specialty lies in making life a living hell for any student who isn’t athletically inclined. (I think I had this man as a coach in seventh grade—only my teacher was said to resemble a young Robert Stack, something I cannot imagine ever being said about Billy Bob Thornton.) The concept is that much humor can be mined from watching a grown man humiliate, browbeat, belittle and even physically abuse the adolescents under his care. If the prospect of an asthmatic kid being made to run laps as punishment for wheezing strikes you as comedy at its finest, you’ll adore this aspect of the movie.
Naturally, there’s one student that stands out as Mr. Woodcock’s pet-whipping boy: John Farrelly (newcomer Kyley Badridge), a slightly overweight, decidedly unathletic lad with a great many moles, who will somehow grow up to be played by Seann William Scott. (When will this man get a last name so I don’t have to check what order his three first names come in every time he appears in a movie?) The adult Farrelly is bereft of moles, looks nothing at all like his childhood self (oh, the magic of movies), and has become the author of a best-selling self-help opus, Letting Go of the Past. His newfound fame earns him an invitation to return to his Nebraska hometown for the annual corn festival to be awarded the coveted “Corn Cob Key to the City.” (Since the movie is set in Nebraska, the corn jokes are as high as an elephant’s eye—apologies to Mr. Hammerstein for being a couple states off.) What he finds when he gets home is that his mother (a slumming Susan Sarandon) is dating Mr. Woodcock and will soon announce her engagement to the man. Not surprisingly, Farrelly feels she’s making a huge mistake and sets out to break up the impending nuptials. Who can blame him?
The problem with all this—aside from the fact that mom and the entire town have to be seriously deficient in the brain-cell department not to realize that Mr. Woodcock has all the warmth and humanity of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (1987)—is that the film has no idea how to make any of this funny, or for that matter, what it wants to be. As a result, the movie plods along from unfunny gag to unfunny gag, occasionally pausing to transparently set up another unfunny gag for later—until it arrives at the most bizarre conclusion imaginable.
After expending 80 minutes establishing Mr. Woodcock as the least appealing human being you’re ever likely to meet—which is supposedly explained by one scene with his even nastier father (Bill Macy)—the movie turns around and concludes that the man’s “teaching” techniques are what made Farrelly into the fine figure of adulthood he is today. (I was wrong—this movie isn’t about my seventh grade coach, I think it was written by him.) So just keep that in mind. Nothing will turn a boy into a man more successfully than humiliation and abuse. Who says movies aren’t educational? Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference.