If IKEA made movies, they might look something like this: a big bunch of prefabricated parts that not so obviously fit together. Todd Phillips and his his co-writer Scott Armstrong (who also worked together on the hilarious Old School, the pretty fun “Road Trip” and the lame Starsky & Hutch) seem to have set out to do not so much a remake of the 1960 British comedy with which it shares a title and a general premise than a hodgepodge of some of the best American films of the late ’90s, namely Magnolia , Fight Club and, to a lesser degree, Rushmore. Then for good measure, they cast Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton and basically made them redo their performances from, respectively, “Napoleon Dynamite” and Bad Santa.
“There are two types of men in this world: those who run shit, like me, and those who eat shit, like you.”
The most interesting aspect to me is the character played by Thornton, who’s perfectly mastered this kind of grumpy, cynical bastard since the aforementioned Terry Zwigoff film. His Dr P (hil? enis? ussy?) is an extreme kind of self-help guru. He’s a little bit Frank T.J. Mackey (“Respect the cock… and tame the cunt!”), teaching insecure guys how to lie their way into a girl’s panties, a little bit Tyler Durden (“I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”), pitting his disciples against each other to toughen them up and sending them on assignments where they have to “initate confrontation” with random people. The “Fight Club” thing doesn’t end there, as Dr. P eventually clashes with his best student Roger (Heder), who initially responds to his unorthodox methods but eventually grows to feel that it’s gone too far. And at the end, we find out that they’re actually multiple personalities of the same dude… nah, just kidding!
In fact, what they do halfway through the movie is sidetrack into the “Rushmore” plot, with the young protagonist having to compete with his mentor in seducing the same woman. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing exchange of cruel pranks between the two is nowhere near as inventive and brilliantly mis en scène as in the Wes Anderson picture, but it’s also not really funny. That is, unless you can’t get enough of facile physical humor, most of it involving someone getting hit in the groin. Most damning, the sentimental thread sometimes takes itself way too seriously, as if we cared whether or not Roger will win over his Australian girl-next-door (Jacinda Barrett, not registering much). We don’t care about the guy at all, really. Am I the only one who finds Heder’s mouth-breathing, deer-in-headlights acting style more obnoxious than endearing or amusing?
What did make me laugh is some of the dialogue, especially when delivered by Billy Bob. The supporting cast is pretty awesome, too. Luis Guzmán, the always badass Michael Clarke Duncan, David Cross (“I’m going out with two different Asian chicks!”), bitchy comedian Sarah Silverman and Horatio Sanz (who just got canned from SNL) all have good moments. The Ben Stiller cameo, though, is as pointless as it is unfunny. That’s “School for Scoundrels” for you: some good parts, some not so good, all of which the filmmakers try to make fit together, hoping their IKEA flick won’t fall apart. Considering how mismatched the pieces are, the end result isn’t that bad, but not quite worth a trip to the multiplex. Wait for the DVD.