Watching Jon Heder in School for Scoundrels, one can’t help but wonder what will happen to the 29-year-old’s career once he outgrows his geekiness and real, honest-to-goodness normalcy sets in. From his breakout performance in Napoleon Dynamite to the tepid The Benchwarmers to the mildly entertaining Scoundrels, which opens Friday, Sept. 29, Heder has capitalized on his nerdy persona, the assets of which include a slight overbite that keeps his mouth ajar, an ”Eeyore” monodrone of a baritone, and a perpetually blank, dazed expression. Today’s nerd is tomorrow’s wash-up — and unless Heder soon proves that he has real acting chops that go beyond the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of nerd-dom, his one-note career is bound to fade.
You want butter with that? Heder
As the semi-romantic lead in School for Scoundrels, Heder carries his first full movie since 2004’s Dynamite. He manages to generate not only humor but genuine sympathy for his character of Roger, a New York meter maid who might as well be walking around with a giant ”L” emblazoned on his back. Easily intimidated and prone to panic attacks, Roger’s such a complete wimp that even the kids for whom he volunteers as a Big Brother won’t have anything to do with him.
Roger gets wind of a class taught by the mysterious Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) which promises to make fearless, confident rats out of meek little mice. ”How many of you own self-help books?” asks the abusive doctor of his roomful of weak-willed males, each of whom have paid $5,000 for the privilege to attend the top-secret class. Hands shoot up. ”Throw them away,” he barks. ”You can’t help yourself because yourself sucks.”
Aggressive, insulting, possibly pathological, and almost certainly criminal, Dr. P pushes the men to create confrontations for no other reason than to express dominance. He also advises them to treat the opposite sex with indifference and contempt. Among his dating tips: ”No compliments, ever,” and ”Lie, lie and lie some more.”
Since most of the guys in the class desperately want to score with girls — most for the very first time — the advice proves to be invaluable. It certainly works for Roger, at any rate, who pines for his neighbor, the bright and appealing Amanda (brightly and appealingly portrayed by Jacinda Barrett). The pair go out on a date that culminates in the rescuing of a restaurant’s lobsters and Roger passing out in a drunken stupor, which Amanda finds too, too adorable.
School for Scoundrels wouldn’t be much fun if Roger got the girl that easily. So enter Dr. P, who sets his own sights on bedding Amanda and breaking Roger’s heart. ”Use what you’ve learned and defeat me,” Dr. P challenges his star pupil. ”Game on.” From this point forward, Todd Phillips’s movie descends to a level of silliness that is only amusing if tennis balls and electroshocks to the groin are your idea of funny.
The movie is aided by a small stream of sweetness that ripples beneath its surface. It’s a knee-jerk pleasure to watch the wimpy Roger stand up and fight for the two things he cares about most — Amanda’s heart and his regulation meter maid tennis shoes, stolen early on by a couple of street thugs.
The supporting cast includes Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman, both of whom phone in their performances, and Saturday Night Live‘s recently fired fat ‘n’ happy comic, Horatio Sanz, one of the most talentless creatures to lumber across screens large and small. Todd Louiso is a standout as one of Roger’s fellow nerds and Michael Clarke Duncan has a few funny moments as Dr. P’s brute-force assistant.
I’ll give director Phillips, who also made the Will Farrell hit Old School, this much credit — he understands his target teenage-boy audience’s craving for puerile humor. But he’s also not afraid to give them a little warmth and romance in case they happen to be lucky enough to have brought a date to the theater. As such, School for Scoundrels is a notch better than your basic Adam Sandler idiot-fest, but it doesn’t quite achieve the satirical brilliance it needs to keep us roaring. Let’s just say it comes a few credits shy of graduating with comedy classic honors.