Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
Two "guy" comedies -- a big studio release and a wee indie -- guess which one delivers the laughs?
Roger is a decent but gentle guy put upon by the aggressive world around him. He’s a sensitive soul but one with such little
personality that even the Big Brother program dumps him – after his “Little Brother” finds him a dullard. This so greatly affects
sweet Roger that he breaks down on the street and cries to the mortification of the program director Ian (David Cross). Ian takes
pity on Roger and gives him the number of the tough, mysterious Mr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) who runs a class for classic
underachievers. Mr. P promises the assembled group of nerds – who has each forked over $5,000 in cash – to toughen them up
and give them the confidence that they’re missing. That’s the set up for School for Scoundrels, the formulaic, intermittently
funny new film from Todd Phillips that’s about two steps from his frat house comedy, Old School and the smirking Starsky & Hutch.
As Roger (who works as a meter reader for the police department) continues with the assertiveness training classes and begins to
toughen up, he becomes aware that Mr. P is also vying for the girl of his dreams, the pretty brunette Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) who
lives down the hall with her nasty roommate/sidekick Becky (Sarah Silverman). A comedic game of one-upmanship between the two
for the hand of the unaware Amanda ensues with plenty of sight gags aimed squarely at the groin area tossed in as expected.
This is not a good time to be meek or bashful in the movies as these characters can count on scene after scene of the most
extreme humiliation (the more extreme the more the audience is cued to laugh at these human cartoon Wile E. Coyote’s). This is
not a new formula for the movies – far from it (Scoundrels itself is a remake of a much funnier 1960 British comedy) – but maybe it
just seems that audience’s appetites for these pictures has never been this strong. One thing is clear: straight guys sure do love
seeing geeks and freaks and nerds and nellies getting the stuffing knocked out of them. It goes without saying that much of the
comedy in these pictures is based on an implicit homophobia – an understanding that the audiences for these movies won’t mind a
high quotient of fag jokes and “hilarious” set ups that place the two male leads in unknowing but compromising positions (the
nauseating Without a Paddle comes to mind immediately).
To its credit, School for Scoundrels resists this cheap shot but that’s not to say that writer-director Phillips has dialed down the
crudeness of his previous movies (he hasn’t) or that the implied homophobia isn’t still right there on the tip of Mr. P’s tongue (it is
and Phillips finally can’t help tossing in a “hilarious” subplot centering on gay rape). What saves the picture is casting Heder in the
lead role – and much of that has more to do with the audience’s enormous identification with the actor than with his performance.
No matter what variety of roles this young actor takes on, he’s going to carry the ghost of Napoleon Dynamite around with him. And
why not? Napoleon – with his 80s pirate boots and pants, emergency phone calls for Chapstick to brother Kip and his surprising
dance moves – made such an indelible impression on audiences that the photo alone of the gape mouthed frizzy haired nebbish on
the poster was enough to sell the picture (just as the squeaky clean one of Steve Carell for The 40 Year Old Virgin did).
But the tremendous good will that Heder engenders will only carry him so far. His everyman looks – the toothy grin, shaggy dog
haircut and slacker slouch – won’t be enough to differentiate him from the herd for long as a career playing Napoleon would have
(though that too might have finally worn thin). On his own Heder is not a particularly funny guy – something that will have to
change. He doesn’t have the madman’s gleam in the eye of a Robin Williams, the gift for physical comedy of Will Ferrell or other
SNL alumni of his ilk, the versatility of Carell or even the I’ll Do Anything For A Laugh zaniness of lesser comics like Rob Schneider.
At the moment Heder is perhaps where Paul Reubens, with his acknowledged desire to rid himself of Pee Wee Herman, would have
liked to have found himself after Pee Wee’s Big Adventure back in 1985 – away from his signature character with the audience still in
tow. For now that’s enough to give a pass to a weak picture like School for Scoundrels.
Everything that School for Scoundrels isn’t The Puffy Chair is. This gentle slacker comedy (in its second week at the Landmark
Century Centre Cinema), the first feature from the Duplass brothers (Jay directs, Mark writes and stars) had me laughing from the
get go. The movie, a road trip picture, finds another put upon lead – Josh, the guy who has given up touring with the band he loves
for the prickly girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) he maybe loves. A car trip to deliver a birthday present, the purple velour chair of
the title, to his father will help him decide.
Setting out on the journey, Josh decides to stop in and visit his brother, the “natural, deep and real” Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) who guilts
Josh and Emily into taking him along for the ride. As the trio approach their destination tensions are heightened as things go from
bad to worse. The punchy scenes are sparked by the sparring between Josh and Emily which, as in real life, goes from flippant to
deadly seriousness in the blink of an eye. The dialogue has the improvisational freshness of the John Cassavetes pictures
(Husbands in particular comes to mind) and the performances of Duplass and Aselton in the leads has the same natural quality that
Cassavetes and wife Gena Rowlands brought to their screen pairings.
This is a winning debut from a talented duo worth watching.
Dumb and Not Dumber:
School For Scoundrels-The Puffy Chair
9-27-06 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.