Billy Bob Thornton started his career playing colorful characters, mostly tough-guy roles, before making it big in 1996 with "Sling Blade." Since then, we've seen him in things as serious as "Monster's Ball," "The Apostle," and "The Alamo," but as often going the lighthearted comedy route in movies like "Bandits," "Bad Santa," "Bad News Bears," and this one from 2007, "Mr. Woodcock." Although the man handles everything that's thrown at him with equal aplomb, I rather think "Mr. Woodcock" was one irascible comic character too many.
I can picture the screenwriters sitting around thinking this one up: Didn't we all have at least one teacher in junior high or high school we hated because he (or she) was so mean or cruel or ill-tempered or tyrannical? And wouldn't it be a kick to make a movie about one of these monsters who haunted our youth now dating our widowed mother and possibly becoming our new father? Then, hey, let's make it a comedy!
So, if your idea of the worst possible person in the world becoming your dad, "Mr. Woodcock" is for you. I found the whole idea questionable to begin with, but with virtually nothing in it of any humorous value, either, the result is simply tedious.
Thornton plays Jasper Woodcock, a P.E. teacher at Forest Meadows Middle School, who delights in torturing his students and anyone else who strays within his sphere of influence. Woodcock rejoices in inflicting pain on those smaller or weaker than he is. He's mean-spirited, angry, and bitter. We never learn why except that maybe he was born that way. He physically beats up on his students, hitting them with bats and basketballs and putting his foot on their back when they're doing push-ups. If that's not enough, he psychologically demeans them as well, calling them names and humiliating them in front of others and generally behaving like a total jerk toward everyone around him.
But, surprisingly perhaps, Woodcock is not the main character in this movie. That dubious honor goes to John Farley, a former student of Woodcock's in seventh grade. At age thirteen Farley was a short, pudgy little kid that Woodcock took special delight in tormenting, if Woodcock even thought about Farley enough to take any delight in it. Then the story jumps thirteen years, with Farley having undergone a complete makeover. He's now a handsome, trim, athletic young man and the successful, best-selling author of a self-help book called "Letting Go: How to Get Past Your Past." The only two problems are that his mom is dating Woodcock and that Seann William Scott plays Farley. Yes, just when you think the film can't get any worse, Scott shows up. Or have you forgotten him in "American Pie," "American Wedding," "Road Trip," "Dude, Where's My Car?," and "The Dukes of Hazzard"? The guy's on a roll.
I mean, what more could go wrong? Well, plenty. Although the lovely and gracious Susan Sarandon plays Farley's widowed mom, the trouble is that she has the thankless task of playing a dummy, the Corncob Queen of 1970. What could she possibly see in a creep like Woodcock unless she has no mind? Then, again, what could the whole town see in Woodcock? They've just named him "Educator of the Year." Fat chance, unless only idiots live in this town. But, then, you knew that. Everyone in this story is an idiot, from the main characters to the supporting players, from Farley's old friends and Woodcock's dad to some children in a burger joint who are complete brats. And all of them to the person like Woodcock and respect him for his "toughness" and "honesty." Only in stupid movies, I guess.
Needless to say, Farley and Woodcock don't exactly hit it off. This might have gone somewhere, if only both Thornton and Scott didn't appear so highly restrained in their roles, doing little more than glaring at each other most of the time. (Thornton never so much as smiles.) My impression is that director Craig Gillespie (whose only other feature film at this time is "Lars and the Real Girl," after many years of doing TV commercials) wanted the comedy to play as subtly as possible for greater laughs. News, Mr. Gillespie: There are no laughs, and it might have been better if everybody involved simply went gung-ho for the jugular.
Anyway, the idea of Farley's mom sleeping with the demon Woodcock (we're supposed to find the name funny, too; that's the level of the humor) sends Farley up a wall. How big a jerk is Woodcock? He tells Farley "I don't do 'sorry.' 'Sorry is for criminals and screwups, and I'm neither one." Uh huh.
Moreover, no other character in the movie gets any better treatment. Amy Poehler plays Farley's agent, a knot head who hasn't even read his book; and Melissa Sagemiller plays one of Farley's old high school friends, although as a romantic interest she is almost nonexistent.
Once past the premise, which, as I say, is pretty shabby, the movie has nowhere to go except to make Farley try to break up his mom and Woodcock. Funny? No.
"Mr. Woodcock" is one of the few movies in the past couple of years I seriously wanted to get up and walk out of. I did so on half a dozen occasions, just to relieve the tedium. Nothing, nothing in this film approaches plausibility or credibility, even for pure farce. Then we get an ending that goes from ridiculous to mushy to intolerably corny within the space of a few minutes. The whole film is like a depressing nightmare.
One can find some relief, however, in the picture quality, which looks fairly good. New Line engineers secure strong, bright colors and decent definition from a high-bit-rate, 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphic widescreen transfer. While the hues are certainly radiant, they aren't always natural, but I suppose that's the way they looked in a theater. Darker areas of the screen are a bit murky, too, but, otherwise, detailing shows up quite well. It's a clear print, with only a touch of normal film grain in evidence.
The sound is rather ordinary. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio has little to do except reproduce the film's dialogue and does so with ease. In the beginning there is an overly prominent bass response, but, fortunately, it calms down as the film progresses. Other than that, there's a wide front-channel stereo spread, a realistically well integrated midrange, and a whisper of surround activity from time to time, mostly in musical backgrounds.
Nothing new here, but at least the extras spare us the usual director's commentary, for which I give it an extra point. Things start with ten deleted or alternate scenes in anamorphic widescreen, lasting about twelve minutes altogether. Next is a fifteen-minute featurette, "The Making of Mr. Woodcock," in which the stars and filmmakers tell us how great the movie is. Then there's a twelve-minute featurette, "P.E. Trauma Tales," that features a real-life P.E. teacher, plus the cast telling us of their most-miserable gym experiences.
Things wind down with sixteen scene selections but no chapter list, just a promotional insert for other New Line products; Sneak Peeks at seven more New Line releases; English as the only spoken language; English and Spanish subtitles; and an embossed slipcover.
It's hard to believe after watching this film that an Oscar winner like Billy Bob Thornton chose to be in it. "Mr. Woodcock" is not zany, not comical, not satirical, not amusing, not even faintly diverting. It's just painful in its attempts to make something funny out of a thoroughly corrupt character and a distasteful situation.