Lacking Laughs

Jon Heder bores and Billy Bob Thornton repeats himself in the lackluster 'School for Scoundrels'

Jon Heder continues to prove he's no leading man, and Billy Bob Thornton repeats himself in School for Scoundrels, a rather drab, pointless time at the movies. It wants to be some sort of dig at self-help classes and inspirational coaching, but it's just a bland retread of nerd movies.

Heder plays Roger, a traffic cop prone to panic attacks who has his uniform and money stolen on the job after passing out during a confrontation. Roger has a crush on Amanda, a beautiful Australian girl in his building (played by the charming Jacinda Barrett ... and she actually is Australian!), but no courage to ask her out. He tries to do charity work as a Big Brother, but the kids keep requesting somebody other than him. When his sorry state is noticed by a buddy (the great David Cross, pretty much wasted here), he gives Roger a phone number to call, telling him that his life can be changed.

Roger makes the call and finds himself enrolled in a class where mean bastard teacher Dr. P (Thornton) intends to make him and a bunch of goofy misfits into tenacious lions. Thornton is in Bad Santa, evil-dickweed mode once again, and while it's something he does quite well, the material is weak and doesn't justify him going down this path again. We're talking about one of the most versatile actors out there, and he's been averaging one "asshole" role a year since 2003's Bad Santa. It's time for him to play Jesus or something.

Dr. P likes to insult his students, terrorize them with his menacing sidekick (Michael Clarke Duncan) and give them Fight Club-type assignments, like ordering them to start a confrontation with someone after their beeper goes off. None of it is very funny, and the presence of unfunny people such as Horatio Sanz doesn't help. There are no surprises in scenarios such as a paintball competition and Dr. P demanding that his students wear shades all of the time. The film feels like a rerun.

When Roger starts to go places with Amanda and proves himself to be the most promising of the bunch, Dr. P ups the ante by going after his girl, masquerading as a surgeon. This part of the plot is totally ludicrous, as if Roger couldn't convince Amanda that Dr. P is a fraud. (Take her to the class!) The film makes too many outrageous leaps, yet it tries to maintain a realistic tone that just doesn't jibe.

Heder hems and haws trying to make something out of his misbegotten role. No doubt, the guy was great as Napoleon Dynamite, and he was amusing in his bit part with Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven. Here, he just doesn't fit the bill or provide anything engaging enough to justify his casting. His best bet seems to be caricatures like Napoleon, or supporting parts. He just doesn't cut it as the center of this movie. There are supporting players all around him, including Cross, who seem more deserving of his role.

This is a movie that can't give the likes of Thornton, Cross and Sarah Silverman any legitimate laughs. These folks are funny just standing around, yet they don't get a single giggle. That's quite the accomplishment when you really think about it. Only Ben Stiller, in a small cameo role, gets a couple of laughs as a former Dr. P student-turned-reclusive cat man.

Director Todd Phillips, who quit his Borat gig to helm this bore, brings none of the anarchic spirit of his earlier films (Road Trip, Old School) to this party. His work here is as underwhelming and pedestrian as his Starsky and Hutch, so the guy is officially in a rut. He's allegedly working on a script for Old School 2 in hopes that Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn will sign on. Cross your fingers and pray, Todd.