The prostrate new comedy ``School for Scoundrels" represents a waste of a perfectly good title. Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (``Old School," ``Starsky & Hutch"), it's a remake of a 1960 British film about a sad sack who gets lessons in being a successful jerk, and it achieves something previously thought impossible: It renders Billy Bob Thornton unfunny.
The main character, Roger, is played by Jon Heder -- Napoleon Dynamite himself -- making a noble stab at a romantic lead. Hair combed out in a woebegone pageboy, jaw swinging slackly in the breeze, Roger is a New York City meter man with big dreams and no spine. He's regularly bullied into paying the tickets he writes out, and he's tongue-tied in front of his neighbor, a pretty Australian named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett of ``The Real World" and ``The Last Kiss") whose acid-tongued roommate (Sarah Silverman) immediately pegs him as a Dahmer-in-training.
Clearly, the boy needs help, so a friend and former nerd (David Cross) sends Roger to Dr. P. (Thornton), the leader of a top-secret adult education class in how to discover one's inner stud. ``I used to be like you," confides the friend, ``and now I'm dating two different Asian chicks!" It's all about the goals, obviously.
Aided by a sadistic drill sergeant named Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan), Dr. P. whips his cowering students into shape with manly mantras: ``Friends are just abstractions that stand between you and success"; ``A lion reaches out and takes what he wants"; ``Lie, lie, and lie some more."
In short order -- too short order -- Roger is the class's most promising pupil, which causes the good doctor's competitive afterburners to kick in. The back half of ``School for Scoundrels" is a battle semi-royal between teacher and student, with the clueless Amanda as the prize.
Now, a good, ruthless tale of male aggression -- its uses and misuses -- has potential, and if you've seen ``Bad Santa" and ``Bad News Bears" you know Thornton is the man you want leading the charge. Sadly, the movie doesn't let him get out of first gear. The editing in ``School for Scoundrels" has been keyed to tortoise Heder rather than jackrabbit Thornton, and Dr. P.'s impatient, profanity-studded maxims, hilarious as they are, never build to combustive levels. There's too much dead air, and after a while you sense Thornton's attention wander to the movie he'll be making after this one.
Heder gives it a go, and the film's failure isn't really his fault. He's too passive-aggressive for farce, though, and while Phillips fills the edges of the screen with known goofballs -- Ben Stiller as a former pupil, Luis Guzman as Roger's boss, Todd Louiso and Horatio Sanz as fellow students -- ``School for Scoundrels" is in search of a core motor that's just not there.
A nice half-twist toward the end almost saves it, with the fake-outs between Roger and Dr. P. reaching amusingly nasty levels of gamesmanship. The problem is that what they're fighting over isn't worth the energy: Barrett's Amanda is a dull sweetie utterly devoid of interest. ``School for Scoundrels" goes against common sense and even its own title: Why should Roger care about this limp noodle when he has Sarah Silverman in all her sadistic, gorgeous glory right next door?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.