School for Scoundrels

(2006) ** Pg-13
101 min. MGM. Director: Todd Phillips. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clarke Duncan, Horatio Sanz.

With his Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus empire, John Gray hawks relationship advice through books, CDs, DVDs, tapes, TV shows, workshops, seminars, and most recently, a "Telephone Coaching Program." Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider hit the gender jackpot with their tough-loving advice book for women The Rules... (the sequel The Rules for Marriage... proved less convincing when Fein's marriage imploded). Today, Tom Leykis peddles his "Leykis 101" class over the airwaves, berating men to wise up and accept that women are dream-killers and gold-diggers good only for sex and a few laughs.

One of P.T. Barnum's rivals once trumpeted, "There's a sucker born every minute...and two to take 'em." The arguably misnamed "self-help" market was made for suckers like Roger, the protagonist of School for Scoundrels. As played by Jon Heder (a.k.a. Napoleon Dynamite), meter maid Roger is the ultimate pushover. Given that even his Little Brother dumps him to "play the field," Roger's in no shape to tackle a relationship with his cute neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). But Roger gets wind of an underground Learning Annex course that may solve all his problems.

This Plight Club is peopled exclusively with wusses played by familiar comic second bananas: Todd Louiso (High Fidelity), Matt Walsh (The Daily Show), Horatio Sanz (SNL), Jack Kehler (Invincible), Jon Glaser (Late Night with Conan O'Brien). They're no match for their new professor Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), a bully who promptly puts the fear of God into them. These mice will become lions, if they're willing to pick fights (a homework assignment ripped straight from Fight Club), lie through their teeth, and take what they want.

Writer-director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scot Armstrong (adapting the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating!) steer the generic amusements of bumbling poindexters into darker territory as Roger takes Dr. P's lessons to heart. Roger makes almost accidental headway at work and in his love life, but in true romantic-comedy fashion never considers what will happen when he's jobless or his lies to his beloved inevitably catch up to him. When Dr. P—either emboldened or unnerved by Roger's success—targets Amanda for himself, a dirty-pool rivalry erupts between the mentor and his student.

At this point, logic and character bend to the whim of the screenplay as Roger transforms from a guy sweating to compete to Dr. P's super-confident alpha-male nemesis. Heder shares responsibility for Roger's not-terribly-believable ease in taking on the new attitude; he's more convincing idling in dork mode than engineering on-the-spot attacks against experienced cad Dr. P. Not surprisingly, it's Billy Bob Thornton's seedy comic instincts that keep School of Scoundrels in session.

The margins swell with comic acting talent. Michael Clarke Duncan plays Dr. P's intimidating right-hand man, Ben Stiller makes an extended cameo as a former student (hilariously, a Granada vet), and David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Luis Guzman all score laughs in brief appearances. But on the whole, the movie's jokes are forgettable and lean heavily on the crutch of pain-driven slapstick, at a paintball course, a tennis court, and finally an airport (final destination of every Hollywood romantic hero).

School for Scoundrels neither digs in to develop genuine crises nor goes deliriously over the top in the vein of a War of the Roses. It putters through its paces amusingly enough, but by the end has forgotten to have an opinion about its own goings-on. Dr. P may be all cad, but does that make him wrong? And does the ruthless hero deserve happiness with a woman to whom he's been content to lie? It's too bad that Phillips fumbles for comic gimmickry when he has the makings of a rich and timely satire on poison-peddling motivational personalities.

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