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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Billy Bob Thornton, Susan Sarandon, Seann William Scott, Ethan Suplee, Melissa Sagemiller
DIRECTOR
Craig Gillespie
SCREENPLAY
Michael Carnes, Josh Gilbert
MPAA RATING
Rated PG-13
RUNNING TIME
87 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
New Line
 "Mr. Woodcock" Review 
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I've been thinking about it constantly.

I can't stop laughing.

No, silly. I'm not talking about "Mr. Woodcock," the latest in a disturbingly lengthy line of "I'm a grumpy but sincere curmudgeon" films featuring Oscar-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton.

I'm talking about the dream double-bill...

"Mr. Woodcock" and "Balls of Fury."

The idea of it just plain cracks me up.

If you laughed at that idea, then you've just laughed harder than you will at 90% of the material in either film. If you didn't laugh at the idea, then you've still just laughed harder than you will at 90% of the material in either film.

To be sure, Thornton isn't doing a Cuba Gooding, Jr. These irrascible good guy films aren't horrible films, by any means. They're modestly entertaining films in which Thornton competently acts his way through a series of comic cruelties only to work his way to the point of redemption.

There's nothing particularly wrong with these films, including "Mr. Woodcock." They're just, well, sort of lazy for an Oscar-winning actor who we know for a fact is capable of so much more. With Gooding, most of us always had the vague notion that he was a one-hit wonder and that "Jerry Maguire" just happened to be the right role at the right time.

Admit it. We expected him to drift off into cinematic irrelevance.

Billy Bob Thornton is capable of so much more.

It starts with Hollywood's seeming inability to partner Thornton with anyone who can match his emotional and comic energy...with the exception of the pervertedly delightful "Bad Santa" Hollywood has largely failed at this task.

Think about it...

Jon Heder in "School for Scoundrels?" Again, not a horrible film but what a disappointing pairing.

"Bad News Bears?" All I can say is "Ick."

Now, we have "Mr. Woodcock" featuring Seann William Scott as his comic foil. Isn't there something wrong when you're kind of hoping that the film's pseudo "bad guy" actually kicks the good guy's ass?

Now, of course, part of the problem is that Hollywood has no idea how to use the deviously funny Scott. Scott, whose primary claim to fame has been the "American Pie" films, has a sort of devious look about him anyway and the "American Pie" films only cemented that image.

I could sort of buy into Heder's role as a wimp, but Scott as self-help guru?

Please.

In "Mr. Woodcock," John Farley (Seann William Scott) has left his small town to become the best-selling author of "Letting Go," the self-help product of his childhood experiences including those at the hands of Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), the ultimate nightmare gym teacher who pummels his students with real-life lessons.

When Farley returns home, he finds his mother (Susan Sarandon) is dating Mr. Woodcock practically regressing the self-help guru back into that helpless little chubby boy.

Despite a familiar comic premise, "Mr. Woodcock" has the potential to work on the level of "Bad Santa." While Mr. Woodcock is a character Thornton could play in his sleep, the simple truth is he plays these characters well and they are frequently funny. If you throw in Susan Sarandon's usual sensitive and funny performance, then "Mr. Woodcock" should have been a much better film.

The problem is Seann William Scott. I'm not suggesting that Scott is a bad actor, but he's horribly miscast here as a man who must invite our sympathy, project sincerity, display a certain degree of woundedness then downward spiral into his old ways.

The right actor would have been delightfully funny in doing so. I found myself imagining Johnny Knoxville in the role, no particularly brilliant actor, but unusually skilled at evoking both warmheartedness and the jackass within. THAT'S what this film needed...instead, Scott mostly plays it safe and gives is a milque-toast version of John Farley that mostly comes off as an immature, hardly well-adjusted young man whose quick abandonment of the ideas set forth in his book leads to a deserved fate before the film's predictably pat ending.

Even the film's key supporting player, Ethan Suplee, may have very well pulled off the role with more zest given the way Suplee attacks his supporting role with a sort of uncomfortable glee. Suplee finds the darkly comic places within his character, a quality all too lacking in Scott's performance.

The film's other key supporting player, Melissa Sagemiller, is left to her own devices trying to evoke some sort of chemistry between her and Scott.

What is it with poor Sagemiller? First, she's cast as the love interest to Ashton Kutcher in "The Guardian" and now she's the object of affection for Seann William Scott in "Mr. Woodockc."

Melissa, darling, you're better than this...call your agent.

In their first feature film script, Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert show potential but their initial scene hardly qualifies as building up Farley as a genuinely good guy, despite their obvious contrasting him with his strictly business-minded agent (Amy Poehler, doing her usual shtick).

On the flip side, director Craig Gillespie (also directing this year's "Lars and the Real Girl") can't seem to decide if he wants "Mr. Woodcock" to be a lighthearted family comedy, a dark comedy or an "American Pie" type comedy for adults. The result is a sad mix of cinematic nothingness that tosses away a decent performance from Thornton and a winning, albeit one-note, performance from Sarandon.

Still,

I can't stop laughing.

The perfect double bill..."Balls of Fury" and "Mr. Woodcock."

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

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