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Mr. Woodcock

A Neutered Billy Bob Thornton Ain’t Much Fun

Remember, way back when you were in elementary school or high school and forced to endure an hour every day of so-called physical education. If you were athletic, you pretty much got a free pass from the gym teacher who was often a coach in the big three: baseball, basketball or football. If you weren’t athletic, chances are you quietly bided your time until the period was over and you could rush to your next class. Now imagine, years later, encountering the gym teacher who made you miserable. That’s the premise driving Mr. Woodcock, the latest Billy Bob Thornton vehicle wherein he plays a foul-mouthed, intemperate misanthrope, something he’s done multiple times in the last four or five years (School for Scoundrels, The Ice Harvest, Bad News Bears, Bad Santa).

Mr. Woodcock is nominally centered on the spiritual and emotional journey of one John Farley (Seann William Scott), a self-help guru with a national bestseller, Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past, and a potential spot on "Oprah". In honor of his new status as a media celebrity, his hometown, Forest Meadows, Nebraska decides to given him the “Corn Cob Key” during the annual Cornival Festival.

Eager to share his success with his mother, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), and strut his stuff among his old schoolmates and the town's inhabitants, Farley takes an unscheduled break from the book tour and heads to Nebraska. Once in Forest Meadows, Farley discovers that his elementary school nemesis, Mr. Woodcock, is still around terrorizing young boys. Worse yet, he's dating Farley's mother.

Given the PG-13 rating for Mr. Woodcock, the humor is only occasionally crude, occasionally rude, but never strays into the kind of serious raunch that recent comedies like Knocked Up and Superbad have mined for box office success. That PG-13 rating essentially handcuffs Thornton from engaging in the kind of vulgar, skewering tirades that have made him a bankable star in modestly budgeted comedies. Here, Thornton just simmers while his character arrogantly uses his position as a gym teacher to mold scared, intimidated boys into damaged, resentful young men. Thornton still gets a few scene-stealing moments but they’re few and far between.

The paucity of laughs has to be laid at the feet of Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert’s predictable screenplay or Craig Gillespie's (Lars and the Real Girl) uninspired direction, which surprisingly places a premium on character and story turns at the expense of the funny. Relative to the aforementioned Knocked Up and Superbad, Mr. Woodcock has fewer, actually a lot fewer, jokes and physical gags per minute. It slips into gentle satire mode, with modest jabs aimed at the self-help movement, television talk shows and their product-shilling hosts, over-eager, money-obsessed publicists, and small town America, where the annual Cornival apparently provides all the excitement Forest Meadows can handle at any one time.

With the exception of the first 30-40 minutes which, to be fair, contains a decent share of jokes or gags, some admittedly mean-spirited, Mr. Woodcock coasts, pleasantly enough, on the strengths of Thornton, William Scott, and Sarandon’s talents and/or personalities. Counting on likeable leads to carry an otherwise lackluster film, though, is rarely a good plan for commercial success. Mr. Woodcock just proved that point.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars