Mr. Woodcock Review
By Joe Lozito
Too Cruel For School
Billy Bob Thornton's descent into dark comedy caricature continues with "Mr. Woodcock", another addition to the Comedy of Humiliation genre that's thankfully less mean-spirited than his last effort (2006's criminally awful "School for Scoundrels") but not as satirically on-target as his best (2003's gloriously profane "Bad Santa"). "Mr. Woodcock" falls blandly in the middle, playing like a knock-off of "Meet the Parents"
with a lot less warmth.
Seann William Scott takes the Ben Stiller role as John Farley, a small town Nebraska boy who has hit the big time with a self-help book called "Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past". Much to the chagrin of his alcoholic-alpha-woman manager (Amy Poehler, almost in her own movie), John agrees to return home to receive a coveted corn-shaped trophy (it's a farm town, he explains). It's no spoiler to say that John himself isn't entirely past his own past. See, John was once a pudgy child terrorized by Mr. Thornton's titular gym teacher and now, inexplicably, Mr. Woodcock is dating John's mom (Susan Sarandon, almost magically finding depth in this role). That setup is enough to send "Mr. Woodcock" into a downward spiral of childish pranks and "nailing your mom" jokes. When John vows to separate his mom from Woodcock, with the help of his dimwitted boyhood friend (Ethan Suplee, not too far from playing Randy in "My Name is Earl"), what ensues is a pretty standard series of unfortunate events involving baseball bats, surveillance cameras and terribly chosen hiding places.
Since the film's subtlety begins and ends with its title, as a gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock is a verbally and physically abusive monster. If you remember the "My Fair Laddy" episode of "The Simpsons" in which the new gym teacher continually subjects the kids to a one-sided form of Dodgeball called "Bombardment", it's something like that. The film wouldn't work at all if it weren't for Mr. Thornton's palpable glee as the title. He really seems to love playing these characters. And I'll be darned if he isn't good at it. With his spiky hairpiece and compressed grimace, he doesn't make Woodcock entirely human, but he keeps him just this side of reprehensible (a line "School for Scoundrels" crossed and trampled upon repeatedly). And if Susan Sarandon (radiant as ever) can love him (and it's almost made clear why), he can't be all bad.
The script by newcomers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert doesn't try too hard, but it's desperately eager to amuse, so when in doubt the writers put Mr. Thornton back in the gymnasium to pelt a few more kids with basketballs or throw them brutally to the ground in a wrestling demonstration. The director Craig Gillespie (also making his feature debut) keeps things simple, even, it seems, missing a few gags along the way. One thing they don't miss, though, is the obvious setup for a "Meet the Fockers"-type sequel. With "Mr. Woodcock", though, one is more than enough.