'Mr. Woodcock' aims low and misses
You don't need to aim high when you name a movie "Mr. Woodcock." On the other hand, if you're the people behind this latest throwaway Billy Bob Thornton comedy, you should at least aim low enough.
Written by newcomers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert, the film logs almost all of its laughs when it's at its crudest, meanest, and most unfiltered. Everything else - and that is to say most of the movie - is a big, fat, derivative waste of time.
Thornton plays this title character with the same swagger from last year's weak "School for Scoundrels" remake. This time, he's a crass, hard-nosed middle-school gym teacher with a deeply disturbed view of character building. One of his favorite targets is a butterball named John Farley, who grows up to be a famous self-help author/guru played by Seann William Scott (Stifler in the "American Pie" movies). Farley preaches letting go of the past, a mantra that's tested when he returns home to Nebraska to find his mother (Susan Sarandon) in a serious relationship with the infamous Mr. Woodcock.
A "Meet the Parents"-style war ensues, with mind games, athletic contests, and tedious tests of will to determine who's more macho. Farley enlists the help of a simple-minded childhood friend (Ethan Suplee wandering over pretty much in character from the set of "My Name Is Earl"), but he'd be better off harnessing the fire of his ruthless publicist (Amy Poehler) to dispense with this the way she waves off an airline stewardess ("Could I get a real bottle, please? I'm an alcoholic, not a Barbie doll").
This movie needs more of that nasty bite, which is what seems to be promised in the unsettlingly amusing opening scenes of Woodcock terrorizing his students. There's nothing new in Thornton's tactics, but he's at least more interesting than Scott's constipated angry young man. And almost anything would be better than watching these two cartoons jabbing their way toward an ending too silly even for a movie that casts Sarandon as a Corn Cob Queen.
Formal credit for directing "Mr. Woodcock" goes to first-time filmmaker Craig Gillespie, whose upcoming "Lars and the Real Girl" is slated to screen tomorrow as part of the Boston Film Festival. However, it's been reported that the original version of "Woodcock" tested so poorly, director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") was brought in to do several weeks of reshooting. The finished product feels like the unloved child of a bad marriage where the only thing anyone remembers is the sharp edges.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.