I'm a big fan of Billy Bob Thornton. He is an incredible character actor that first caught my attention in his personal project "Swing Blade." From that point on, I've eagerly anticipated each of his projects. Most of his body of work has been impressive and well worth seeing. He was great in Oliver Stone's "U-Turn" as a imbecilic auto-mechanic. "A Simple Plan," "Pushing Tin," "Monster's Ball" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" were also solid outings by the talented actor. "Bad Santa" is one of my all-time favorite films. "Friday Night Lights" and "Bad News Bears" brought out the ‘coach' in Billy Bob. He was also great in "The Ice Harvest" and I enjoyed "School For Scoundrels." Recently, Mr. Thornton has taken a few missteps after being miscast as Davy Crockett in "The Alamo" and starring in the uninteresting "The Astronaut Farmer." However, "Mr. Woodcock" may be the biggest career misstep of his near twenty years in front of the camera.
At face value, "Mr. Woodcock" should have been a perfect role for Billy Bob Thornton. A sadistic and hard-assed physical education teacher who is a sexual beast is a role where it is hard to imagine anybody but Billy Bob taking. Without seeing the film, you can easily put an image in your mind of Billy Bob pelting young children in the head with a basketball or pounding young boys in the groin with a waffle ball bat. Combining this aspect of the role with the major plot point of romancing the mother of a former fat student he had put through hell as a teacher and becoming an overbearing antagonist is also something begging for Billy Bob. There are few out there that can take on the role of a hard-assed coach or teacher and "Mr. Woodcock" is a film that was destined for Billy Bob Thornton.
If you add in talented comedic actor Seann William Scott and Academy Award winning actress Susan Sarandon, you should have the makings of a very solid film. Having up and coming talent Ethan Suplee taking a break from television's "My Name is Earl" and "Saturday Night Live" comedian Amy Poehler in tow and it would seem that "Mr. Woodcock" is almost guaranteed to be a laugh-out-loud home run. Unfortunately, this is not the case and regardless of its familiar and talented cast, "Mr. Woodcock" is not the film that I had hoped it would be. It is not the fault of Billy Bob, or any of his co-stars and supporting cast. The actors all comfortably fit into the skins of their roles and Billy Bob perfectly embodies the gym teacher from Hell, Mr. Japser Woodcock. Scott, Sarandon and Suplee try their best to make "Mr. Woodcock" succeed and Poehler is only a minor annoyance.
The essence of the story is that John Farley (Seann William Scott) is invited home to receive the Corn Cob Key to the town he was born and raised in. This is a huge honor for the young man who has written a self-help book that has become a number one seller. His agent Maggie Hoffman (Amy Poehler) doesn't want him to return home to his redneck town and would prefer him to remain on his book tour. He returns home to his mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon) and is met with quite a surprise. His widowed mother has announced that she has a new love in her life. Unfortunately, that person is the former gym teacher that consistently ridiculed him when John was a heavy weight kid in elementary school. He quickly decides that he must break up the relationship between his mother and Mr. Woodcock and enrolls the help of a former school buddy Nedderman (Ethan Suplee) who was also terrorized by Woodock.
"Mr. Woodcock" fails for two specific reasons. The first and most important flaw is in the writing. The screenplay by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert is a basis for an entertaining film, but a script doctor was desperately needed to help this film out. Seann William Scott's character, John Farley, should have remained the self-help and uplifting character he was in the beginning of the film. Instead, John became a cruel and mean-spirited person that made Mr. Woodcock look almost saintly. There should have been a clear-cut line between good and bad. Instead, we were left with two cruel characters vying to become the biggest asshole in town. There should have been far more abuse handed out towards John from Woodcock. The actors were perfectly cast and the characters began in the right places, but the writing of the story didn't keep the characters honest to themselves.
The second problem with the film was simply the PG-13 rating. If Billy Bob Thornton is to be cast as a ruthless and mean-spirited gym teacher, you need a few f-bombs and other examples of foul language. The man is a poet when it comes to obscenities. Look at the success of "Bad Santa." It has become a solid catalog title for Buena Vista and much of the strength of that film lies solely in the crude character brought perfectly to life by Billy Bob. By putting Thornton into a role where he could flourish and cuss like a drunken sailor and then forcing him to use PG-13 profanities, you are limiting the possibilities. Adding in subplots that are sexual in nature and trying to adhere to the family-friendly rating and you are again handicapping the film. "Mr. Woodcock" had a larger ticket paying audience with the rating, but an R-Rating would have brought in far more viewers. Let's face it, in PG-13 guise, "Mr. Woodcock" is far too tame to be interesting given the nature of the main character.
There were a few redeeming parts of "Mr. Woodock." I loved the ‘flashback' scenes where John remembered the horrors of Mr. Woodcock's physical education class. Watching a poor kid get a waffle ball bat in the nuts is always funny. I'm not sure why, but it is. Watching a poor kid get railed repeatedly by a flying basketball is funny too. Now I wasn't a kid who got picked on in gym class, so perhaps I don't see these moments as offensive. I certainly understand they are cruel and I'd feel bad for any real kid who was this unfortunate in his physical abilities, but anytime you have Billy Bob Thornton laying into a defenseless child is just downright funny. Call me a heartless sadist if you will, but this was why I wanted to see "Mr. Woodcock." I wanted to see Billy Bob Thornton open up a can of whupass on poor unsuspecting gym class students and Seann William Scott. It's just a shame there weren't many of these scenes.
The film itself falls into the ‘mildly entertaining' category. There are enough laughs that it isn't a completely dull experience. Some of the situations in the film are quite funny. I thought the scene where John was hiding under the bed of Woodcock while his mom and adversary where engaging in heated and steamy sex was funny. I thought the scene where Woodcock teaches the elderly to take part in water aerobics was good too. I thought any scene with Ethan Suplee was quite good and the moments with Suplee provided the only feel-good moments of the film because of the likeability of the actor. He is the master at playing the lovable dufus who knows absolutely nothing in life, but tries to do well even under wrong pretense. There just weren't enough of these moments to make "Mr. Woodcock" endearing and the two primary flaws I mentioned previously make this a film you will probably only ever watch once.
"Mr. Woodcock" is a good looking Blu-ray title from New Line that is mastered with the VC-1 codec and presents its 2.35:1 framed picture in full 1080p resolution. Detail and coloring are strong with the transfer and generally speaking, "Mr. Woodcock" looks about as good as any other comedy on the format. Detail is very solid and you can count the salt and pepper colored hairs on Thornton's head with ease. Other details such as the textured gymnasium floor, clothing patterns and Suplee's stubble all look very good in high definition. Coloring is also quite good, although the film purposely used a slightly desaturated palette during some of the flashback scenes to help the viewer understand they were watching a segment of the film that was to have happened in older times. The colors generally look strong and Woodcock's horrendous off-red gym suit looks great. Every other aspect of the transfer is strong. I didn't notice any edge enhancement, posterization or other flaws in the film and the source materials were in excellent shape. I've seen sharper and brighter films, but for the most part, "Mr. Woodcock" looked very good.
The only provided audio options is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1