In his new film “School for Scoundrels,” director Todd Phillips has star Billy Bob Thornton deliver a line about a lovesick loser being “one step away from adopting a Chinese baby.”
Even if Angelina Jolie hasn’t gotten around to adding a Beijing-born child to her collection, having her ex-husband crack that surreal joke offered a fleeting promise that Phillips might apply the no-holds-barred, acerbic honesty from his “Old School” to this remake of a 1960s British farce.
Whatever ingenuous insight “Scoundrels” has early on is undermined by its hasty and illogical plotting near the end. Yet the film is still worth a look for the amusing battle of dim-wits between Thornton, in full surly scalawag mode, and our hero, who appears to be a more well-adjusted cousin of Napoleon Dynamite.
Jon Heder — forever blessed and burdened with having portrayed the aforementioned Mr. Dynamite — is Roger, a sappy sap who gets pushed around on the job as a New York City meter maid when he’s not quivering in his pubescent pajamas at the beautiful Australian girl (Jacinda Barrett) who lives in the apartment down the hall. One day, he receives some hush-hush information about a special class that turns losers into lovers for $5,000.
The mysterious Dr. P (Thornton) teaches the class, and the film crackles with nasty humor when it’s in session. Roger and his classmates — including “High Fidelity’s” Todd Louiso and “SNL” grad Horatio Sanz — are taught to lie, lie and lie some more to get the girl, and receive a crash course in Neanderthalic masculinity through a blatant (yet hilarious) “Fight Club” homage.
It’s when Dr. P takes on Roger for the Aussie’s hand that the film’s slapstick quota rises but its narrative cohesion falls apart. The third act of “School” feels like Phillips is cramming for a final exam: a new character is introduced, revelations about Dr. P’s true identity fly by too fast to mean anything, and the film’s airplane-set resolution is utterly illogical — both in light of what we know about the characters, and by the current enforcement standards of the Transportation Security Administration.
While Phillips might be able to convince me that a woman would forgive deceitful and completely psychotic behavior for the sake of a saccharine ending, I’m positive the TSA would never allow it to happen without a valid boarding pass.