"Bandits?" The "Bad News Bears" remake? "School for Scoundrels?" Does anyone need further proof that perhaps Billy Bob Thornton is a comedy wet blanket? If so, "Mr. Woodcock" is a fine addition to that list; the entire film reliant on the deadpan glare of Thornton and his anvil-like touch with a punchline.
After suffering years of humiliation at the hands of his hard-ass gym teacher Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), John Farley (Seann William Scott) has grown up to become a best-selling self-help author, urging his readers to put their past behind them. Returning home to Nebraska to enjoy the local "Cornival" and accept a citizenship award, John finds his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) has become engaged to Woodcock, leaving him with the desire to break the two up and ruin Woodcock's life forever.
Shot over two years ago, "Woodcock" should be treated more as a studio misfire oddity than a coherent feature film. It's a hodgepodge of comedy and melodrama, stapled together by massive reshoots, and sold as a dangerous autumn farce (they say cock in the title, hee-hee!). Of course, following a randy summer of "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," "Woodcock" is about as tame as a WB pilot, and retains about the same level of production value. It's a sitcom immersed in the wit of its two lead actors. Too bad those guys are Thornton and Scott.
Now, if you're a fan of Billy Bob and swear that "Bad Santa" is some form of mutated comedy classic, than perhaps there's joy to be found in "Woodcock." For the rest of the audience, watching Thornton and Scott try to top each other in the giggle department is a losing proposition, mostly because the performances fail to break new ground. We've seen Thornton do his army general routine time and again, and someone needs to break Scott of his Stifler habits. The movie depends on the appeal of these two and their antagonistic chemistry. None of that comes across in the film. Oddly, there are times when it feels as though the actors are boring each other.
"Directed" by Craig Gillespie, "Woodcock" runs through fairly standard comedic situations, getting the most mileage out of John and his homestead panic over Woodcock's arrival. Beyond that, the film is simply a dreary, drawn-out series of pranks between the two lead characters, using the backdrop of the gym class, the "Cornival," and domestic sexual situations to scrape out the biggest jokes. Again, most of the feature is dependent on Thornton and Scott's screwball reactions, not the strength of the writing, which often resorts to cruel laziness (watch as John dips Woodcock's whistle in his urine!) to make ends meet.
The only actor who appears to be having any fun here is Sarandon, if only because she's the lone character who gets to smile. Her appearance in the film brings with it larger troubles, because someone, somewhere thought that "Mr. Woodcock" would be a prime candidate for heartwarming sentiment. That's right, not only does the picture hope to tickle your funnybone, it also desires sympathy, assuming that everyone will give a damn about the emotional state of these cartoon characters. As already misguided and thoroughly unfunny as "Mr. Woodcock" is, the final slap of the film has to be the ballsy notion that these people should be allowed compassion.
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