'Mr. Woodcock' drops the ball on comedy

Seann William Scott, left, stars as John Farley, Billy Bob Thornton is Jasper Woodcock and Susan Sarandon is Farley's mother Beverly in "Mr. Woodcock."

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Like many well-respected but low-paying jobs, teaching is often glamorized in the movies. From "The Blackboard Jungle" and "Mr. Holland's Opus" to "Stand And Deliver'' and "Dead Poet's Society," movies tend to celebrate teachers and how they can inspire and lead young minds to great things.

But that's just one side of the story.

While most movie teachers are good role models, there are a few bad apples that got into teaching purely for the chance to terrorize young people. Honestly, that does sound like a bit of fun, doesn't it? But some teachers take it too far - teachers like "Mr. Woodcock," for example.

Mr. Woodcock, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is an exaggerated caricature of a mean gym coach. He berates the kids, inflicts grievous mental and physical damage, and is a big fan of public humiliation. Years after suffering under Woodcock, a self-help writer played by Seann William Scott comes back to town to find that his mother is dating Woodcock. This leads to a revival of their rivalry, as Scott tries to get revenge on Woodcock and break up the burgeoning romance with Mom (Susan Sarandon).

One of the problems with "Woodcock" is that the villain is so vile and the hero is such a foolputz. Within seconds of the movie starting, it is obvious that Woodcock needs a good punch in the mouth to adjust his attitude. Not that violence is always the answer, but here is a man who forces an asthmatic to run laps before making another kid strip in front of the class. Even the most ardent pacifist would agree that Woodcock needs a little chin music.

This makes it particularly hard to sympathize with Scott, whose character is a complete wimp in the hemming-and-hawing Ben Stiller mold. If he had had some of the edge of his Stiffler character (from "American Pie") this might have had a chance, but he is the type of guy who apologizes constantly and only expresses himself at inappropriate times.

But the biggest problem with "Mr. Woodcock" is that it isn't funny. There is nothing worse than a comedy with no laughs - it has no reason to exist. This is the sort of scenario best used as the pilot to a TV sitcom.

Thornton is a great actor, capable of being very funny. He was so funny in "Bad Santa" that he has since become typecast as a comedic villain. More often than not these days he plays either: A) a drunk, B) a seven-letter word that rhymes with "mastered," or C) a drunken mastered.

He played a cruel heel in "School for Scoundrels" last year and plays basically the same role here in "Woodcock." And honestly, I think Billy Bob is tired of it, too, because he doesn't seem to be trying very hard this time around.

I think that, like me, Billy Bob realizes this movie isn't very good. You will realize it too, if you spend any money on this turkey.

The best thing about "Mr. Woodcock" is that it sent me tripping down Memory Lane, thinking about the best of the nastiest, meanest teachers from movie history. Compared to these giants, Mr. Woodcock doesn't even come close.

"Teaching Mrs. Tingle": The great actress Helen Mirren is gleefully wicked as Mrs. Tingle, a high school English teacher who revels in the failure of her students and seems to be a blend of Margaret Thatcher and Hannibal Lecter. It's too bad her character is stuck in this tedious film that plays like an unsuccessful blend of Alfred Hitchcock and "Dawson's Creek."

"The Faculty": This movie features not just one evil teacher but several along with an evil coach principal and school nurse. Body-stealing aliens have arrived to conquer an Ohio high school and are changing all the staff into tentacle-spewing villains who want to devour and control the students. Imagine, an alien being that spans the vastness of space and comes all the way to Earth just to take over a high school.

"Strangers with Candy": Acerbic, pompous and hateful towards his despised students, Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert) is a one-of-a-kind science teacher. Says a student: "My Daddy's in a coma." Says as Mr. Noblet: "Go tell the grief counselor. She's supposed to care."

"Class of 1999 II: The Substitute": Mr. Bolen, played by Sasha Mitchell, wasn't the first cyborg killing machine disguised as a teacher and sent to an inner-city school. And he probably won't be the last. But this Terminator-lite character is played with such dull flatness Mitchell, a sitcom star and professional kickboxer, that he really does seem robotic. The movie itself is screamingly awful, but Mr. Bolen is unique as the only teacher who punishes tardiness with death.

The "Harry Potter" series: Professor Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman, is every student's nightmare. Malevolent and dripping with venom, this professor obviously hates some of his students and treats them with blatant unfairness. He is blunt in his cruelty towards Potter and others yet seems to take such quiet pleasure in his power over them. In the past, Rickman has proven he is worth his weight in gold as a villain, and here he gives one of the slimiest, most detestable performances of his career. For that, I salute him.

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High": Of all the hellish teachers in movie history, none is as iconic as Mr. Hand, played by Ray Walston. The adversary of slacker Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn before he got pretentious), Hand wasn't a villain so much as a disciplinarian who didn't like tardiness, cheating, stupidity or lollygagging in his classroom. His exchanges with the students are as funny now as they were 20 years ago.

Coming Attractions

Another year, another "Saw" movie. Next week, Nateflix tackles "Saw 4." Still to come: reviews of yet another remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and Jodie Foster channeling Charles Bronson in "The Brave One."

High praise and caustic rebukes to Rewindcolumn@hotmail.com.

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