Monday, January 21, 2008

Mr. Woodcock

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Melissa Sagemiller, Ethan Suplee
Running Time: 87 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

We've all had a teacher like Jasper Woodcock at some point during our lives. Also at some point we've all shaken our heads in disbelief as seemingly attractive and intelligent women actually marry guys like him. If you're as unlucky as the main character in this film maybe one of those women was your mom. It's that glimmer of recognition and other clever life observations that make the humor in Mr. Woodcock work. You could tell yourself that the movie is exaggerating or takes things too far, but if it is, it's not by much. Teachers like Woodcock exist and they're often rewarded for their despicable behavior because either people are too dumb to notice or afraid to do anything about it.

Much to my amazement, the movie takes this situation and rather than exploit it with silly sight gags or toilet humor instead looks at it intelligently and mines laughs from the absurdity of everyday life. Despite what its off-color title may suggest, other than some sexual innuendo, this is a comedy that the whole family can enjoy together and also delivers a positive message without pandering to its audience. Most importantly, all the actors look like they're having a great time, except for Billy Bob Thornton who, as usual, is paid to look like he's not. It's a role he's mastered and even if you're sick of it by now, there's no one who does it better.

As a child John Farley (Seann William Scott) was tormented daily by his sadistic gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock (Thornton). Constantly harassed about his weight and even forced to do pull-ups in his underwear he somehow managed to overcome this childhood trauma and become a successful self-help guru and bestselling author ala Tony Robbins. His book, titled "Letting Go" gave inspiration to millions hoping to let go of their pasts and reach their full potentials. Fresh off his book tour, John returns to his mid-west hometown to be honored by the community for his accomplishments and take part in the annual "Cornival." He instead comes home to a terrifying reality: His widowed mom Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is dating Mr. Woodcock. What the film does with this information is a good example of what differentiates a smart comedy script from a stupid one. Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert wrote a surprisingly smart one.

You'd probably expect the rest of the movie to consist of John conjuring up sick, disgusting schemes to break up Woodcock and his mom with Woodcock retaliating and making his life hell again. But actually John approaches the problem logically, as any of us would, and Woodcock doesn't let John's slowly growing hysteria over the situation get to him one bit. Thornton plays it as straight as he would if he were in an Oscar nominated drama, which just makes everything that much funnier. Rather than relying on gross-out gags director Craig Gillespie lets the situation do the work and relies on the two actors to play off one another, which they do quite well.

The movie also goes unburdened with useless, distracting sub-plots and gets a lot of details right regarding small-town life. That hot girl you went to grade school with does eventually become a teacher there and that old buddy from your class still works at the pizza place. This stuff happens…all the time. It'll be 20 years later and no one has left the town. It's funny because it's so true. John's budding relationship with his crush (played by Melissa Sagemiller) isn't shoved down our throats, nor does it just exist for John to make a blubbering fool out of himself as it would any other comedy. It can't really go anywhere because while he's convinced everyone else he's let go of the past, he hasn't fully convinced himself. I liked how they're just two people at different places in their lives and it doesn't work out. That's how it goes sometimes. The script doesn't go for any unnecessary fireworks that would potentially distract from the main storyline.

You'd understand how a community that celebrates structure would be blind to Woodcock's sadistic behavior and even want to honor him. And honestly, how many times in your life have you seen complete assholes praised for their "accomplishments?" I'm sure too many instances to name. In one hilarious scene he torments the elderly, but you'd see why they'd appreciate it because they finally have someone who won't talk down to them and treat them like everyone else. Think of how smart it was for the screenwriters to subtly slide that detail in there. It changes everything. The movie's send-up of the self-help profession is a highlight, with Seann William Scott being not only likable, but surprisingly believable as a motivational speaker and bestselling self-help author. Amy Poehler also has some really funny scenes as his high-strung alcoholic agent.

Thornton finds a way to slide some humanity into the performance, so Woodcock comes very close but stops just short of going too far. Well, okay he does go too far but we accept it in this context. The way he plays him he seems more like a guy with an anti-social disorder and major baggage than just an evil jerk. People like this exist. If any other actress but Susan Sarandon was playing the lovelorn Beverly I'm convinced we wouldn't buy it. She somehow makes us believe she would fall for this guy without looking like a complete idiot. The underrated script knows that sometimes people are so caught up in the idea of being in love they ignore their partner's obvious character flaws. And yes, even if those flaws are as reprehensible as Mr. Woodcock's. It also knows that some act differently around those they care about to the point that they can seem like a completely different person.

For a change, the characters don't undergo a huge transformation overnight that results in a contrived ending. They still have their problems and have to learn to tolerate one another and work through them. Other than one grandstanding gag I was amazed how restrained and intelligent the finale was for this type of movie. With Bad Santa, The Bad News Bears and School for Scoundrels Billy Bob Thornton has been accused of playing variations the same role over and over again. While I agree that it's definitely time for him to move on to something new, there's a little more depth to it this time around and he can take some credit for supplying it. Mr. Woodcock may not be a great film, but it doesn't do much wrong and is consistently entertaining. That's a lot more than you could say for most of the other comedies released these days.

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