Don't get scared off, but there's a soupcon of French farce (think 1661's The School for Husbands, by Moliere) and English Restoration comedy (think 1777's School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan) in Todd Phillips' uproarious and unexpectedly biting School for Scoundrels. A moral subtext is not what you expect from the director of Road Trip and Old School. But Phillips and co-screenwriter Scot Armstrong re hunting bigger game. And they are damn shrewd about playing dumb, a quality that separates this movie from, say, The Dukes of Hazzard or Beerfest. In between the bathroom jokes and paintball fights, the laughs in this hot and rowdy funfest come with a sting.
As Roger, a wussified New York meter maid, Jon Heder orbits past his Napoleon Dynamite character at last by getting seriously fierce. In the beginning, Roger can't find the balls to even ask his neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) for a date. It's no wonder Roger and other assorted misfits, including mama's-boy Walsh (Matt Walsh), pussy-whipped Diego (Horatio Sanz) and creepily virginal Eli (Todd Louiso), sign up for a secret course in one-upmanship and romantic conquest run by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his scary assistant Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan). What Dr. P instructs about women — how to court them, bone them and ump them — earns Roger's admiration until he decides to beat the old horn dog at his own dirty tricks. His motive is revenge. Dr. P wants to seduce Amanda. At an explosively comic tennis match, Roger catches Amanda with a slick Dr. P, using a fake name. "Is this your dad?" Roger asks, ith a bogus innocence only Dr. P could have taught. It's war, and this time it's between equals.
This material was the basis for a droll 1960 movie of the same name filled with twitty Brits. But the inspiration here feels darker and centuries older. According to scholar Virginia Ogden Birdsall, the rake anti-heroes of Restoration comedy are "double-dealing rascals dedicated to the cause of heir own freedom and prosperity." They are "cynical, coarse, but with the manners of a gentleman, witty, manipulative and self-serving in the open pursuit of sensual pleasure."
I can't think of a better description of Thornton's Dr. P, who looks nothing like the bitter burnout Thornton played to perfection in Bad Santa. Dr. P dresses better, wears a rug and is advanced in social skills. Except in the classroom. There he calls his students "retards" and ails at them, "You can't help yourself because your self sucks!" Thornton is fiendishly funny, lacing his charm with a cruelty that spares no one. Thornton's ex, Angelina Jolie, might bristle at the scene in which Dr. P guarantees Roger that he and Amanda will hook up: "In no time, ou'll be adopting a Chinese baby." Ouch!
Ouch, indeed. In a venal society, Dr. P's tactics pay off. Before, Roger was a victim, getting his face shoved in a toilet by a cop bully (Dan Fogler). And Amanda's roommate, hilariously sassed by Sarah Silverman, scalded Roger with her acid-tongued insults.
Now he stoops to their level to conquer his rival. The situation hits meltdown on a flight in which Roger tries to stop Dr. P from taking Amanda off for a wild weekend. Roger's only ally is a former student (Ben Stiller, in top form) who once battled Dr. P and now lives upstate — with cats. "Did Lesher rape you?" he asks Roger, who freaks out big-time.
School for Scoundrels probably juggles too many comic balloons for its own good. The hilarity loses its helium on more than one occasion. It helps that Thornton and Heder keep you howling, but the hero of these two hours is definitely Phillips. This Brooklyn boy dropped out of the film program at NYU before graduation. He'd already scored an underground it with Hated, his 1993 doc about GG Allin, the punk rocker who masturbated onstage, attacked his audiences and sang "I'm Gonna Rape You" and "I Kill Everything I Fuck" until he died from a heroin OD three days before the film's premiere. It's a long way from Hated to the mainstream of 2004's Starsky and Hutch. But the rebel stays alive in Phillips. Admit it, you've watched Old School more than once on DVD. I have. Maybe comic directors can't get respect, especially ones who subvert stupid with their own unassailable smarts. I'm only sorry Phillips dropped out of directing Borat before he and Sacha Baron Cohen could work out their differences. Phillips is here to stay. And the whacked humor and sneaky substance of School for Scoundrels is another compelling reason why.