Gary Dean Murray
The date comedy is a very
tricky animal to catch. It cannot be a boy’s club story like Animal House
or Superbad where frat house style hijinks are the norm. Those films
tend to turn women off. Also by going the other way, one falls into the
Kissing Jessica Stein style of too clever and too cute, too independent
goody-goody flicks. That balance between the two extremes has lately been
shown in films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin where you get both sweetness
and raunchy. The latest flick to attempt the balance beam is Mr. Woodcock.
Seann William Scott plays John Farley a former nerdy kid who has become a
self-help guru. His book is all about getting over childhood trauma. But it
seems that his biggest childhood trauma came in the form of gym coach Mr.
Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton). In his memories, Mr. Woodcock is a dictator,
destroying kids with verbal humiliations and accurately fired basketballs.
The Farley book is repudiation for his childhood and a giant best seller.
Our hero is asked back to his hometown to receive a major local award. When
John gets back home, he finds his mother (Susan Sarandon) has a new man in her
life. And (Sit-Com 101 surprise) it is Mr. Woodcock. John is shocked and
appalled that his mother could be with the man who tortured him. John is also
shocked that the coach doesn’t even remember him. Back in town he also runs
across a former classmate (Ethan Suplee) who was also tortured by the coach.
But this kid has also found strength in the writings of John Farley. He also
comes across a female former classmate (Melissa Sagemiller) who now teaches at
his old school. John decides that the only solution to having Mr.
Woodcock out of his life is (Sit-Com 101 logic) to break up the couple. So
the film becomes a struggle of the Alpha males with all the he-man macho
challenges one would expect, as well as the ‘having sex with my Mom’ jokes.
These two men throw insults at each other, some funny but most fall flat. It
is predictable in every aspect of what is to come.
The film is more amusement than laugh out loud funny. With all the corn
puns this movie shoots more for the hokey crowd. Just about every joke is
anticipated and telegraphed. There is nothing new in the world of Mr.
Woodcock. Amy Poehler, as John's agent, simply steals every scene
she is in. Her deadpan delivery and sardonic wit makes up for this maudlin
exercise in making comedy. Ethan Suplee must have made a wrong turn somewhere
because he is playing his character Randy from My Name is Earl. He
needs to take a different style of role just to avoid serious type casting.
With Mr. Scott you are always going to get some ‘American Pie Style’
moments but he almost gets to show some maturity, especially in his scenes
with Susan Sarandon. Susan still can catch the sparkle of the camera in every
scene she is in. Her job here is more of to react than act but she does get
her few moments to be funny. Billy Bob sobers up his Bad Santa
character as Mr. Woodcock but he never finds a secure direction to take his
performance to a stronger level.
But the biggest problem with Mr. Woodcock is that the premise
doesn’t make sense. Is this teacher a terror as Farley sees him, or is he a
great leader of young men as most of the town thinks the man is? I don’t
think that screenwriters Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert are sure what is the
truth in the world of Mr. Woodcock. Who has the reality of this
situation? It is never answered. Directed by Craig Gillespie, Mr.
Woodcock can not find a center. Without a strong backbone, the skeletal
structure of the work is lost. There might be a good film with these
characters and actors, but this is not that work.
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