Not even the mighty presence of Billy Bob Thornton can stir to life as a provocative comedy of manners, or just plain comedy. Given its premise -- an adult school teacher attempting to remake wimpy men into fearsome macho studs -- pic seemed certain to either fly high on outrageous humor or crash under the weight of tastelessness, leaving distrib MGM with weak fall earnings.

Not even the mighty presence of Billy Bob Thornton can stir “School for Scoundrels” to life as a provocative comedy of manners, or just plain comedy. Given its premise — an adult school teacher attempting to remake wimpy men into fearsome macho studs — pic seemed certain to either fly high on outrageous humor or crash under the weight of tastelessness. Instead, the movie just sits there and never comes alive. Star Jon Heder’s “Napoleon Dynamite” fan club is likely to text-message the guys to stay away, leaving distrib MGM with weak fall earnings.

Anyone who knows the source material — the 1959 Robert Hamer, Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas comedy of the same title, but with a kinder disposition — is too gray to qualify for this film’s target aud, so it’s strange an old pic should be the basis for a high-concept 2006 laffer aimed at young guys.

Despite his hyphenate status, director-producer-co-scribe Todd Phillips (“Old School”) does not appear to be engaged with the story and characters, which may partly explain why Heder and Thornton’s characters come off as so lackluster. Like its spineless males, pic has lost its nerve to challenge aud assumptions of what it means to be a man — presumably the whole point of the exercise.

Parking meter cop Roger (Heder) is an open target for ridicule, either from gangbangers stealing his cherished sneakers or co-workers harassing him. The latest is a group of kids who have rejected him as a Big Brother.

A pile of self-help books at home (the movie’s opening, obvious image) is no help at all. Clearly, trying to snuggle up to cute Aussie neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) is out of the question.

Taking advice from his Big Brother coordinator Ian (David Cross), Roger signs up for an adult ed class on confidence-boosting taught by Billy Bob’s Dr. P, with Michael Clarke Duncan’s Lesher as his intimidating bodyguard.

Dr. P tells his class that they’re not even worthy of the status of “loser,” since losers at least try, and that in order to regain any sense of manhood, they must find their inner lion. (References to the MGM Leo logo at the pic’s header are up to viewer interpretation.)

Less a drill instructor than an unsmiling guy with preening arrogance, Dr. P sends his students into the woods for a paintball game, which includes Lesher having his way (off-screen in this ostensibly PG-13 comedy) with three lowly students –Eli (Todd Louiso), Diego (Horatio Sanz) and Walsh (Matt Walsh) –and Roger showing his first signs of manliness.

Thinking he’s won Dr. P’s favor, Roger fails to grasp that he’s now his mentor’s target: P woos Amanda, whom Roger is finally trying to date. In turn (and in one of pic’s bits that indirectly quote from the Brit original), Roger turns a tennis game into a chance to pummel P with some balls. It’s war, but because things are so languidly paced by Phillips and no truly funny set pieces emerge, this is the comedy equivalent of low-grade combat.

The further he gets away from his toothy/bushy-haired “Napoleon Dynamite” figure, the less amusing Heder manages to be. But he’s not alone. “School” assembles a knockout lineup of comic talent, starting with comic genius Thornton, and unfortunately does not provide them with funny material to work with. Only Ben Stiller, who arrives late to the game as a former shell-shocked pupil of Dr. P, has the opportunity to actually build an indelible character with an amusing core.

There’s something to be grateful for, at least, in Christophe Beck’s score and its ironically amped-up use of military motifs, while the rest of the production credits are merely standard-issue. Though set in New York, pic jarringly inserts blatant Los Angeles locales, including several in the nearby mountains.

School for Scoundrels

Production

An MGM release of a Dimension Films presentation of a Picked Last and Media Talent Group production. Produced by Todd Phillips, Daniel Goldberg, J. Geyer Kosinski. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Hal Chester, Craig Mazin. Co-producers, JoAnn Perritano, Scott Budnick. Directed by Todd Phillips. Screenplay, Phillips, Scot Armstrong.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Jonathan Brown; editors, Leslie Jones, Daniel Schalk; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisors, Randall Poster, George Drakoulias; production designer, Nelson Coates; art director, Scott Meehan; set designer, Alicia MacCarone; set decorator, Denise Pizzini; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Kim H. Ornitz; supervising sound editor, Michael Babcock; special effects supervisor, William Aldridge; supervising stunt coordinator, Gary Davis; associate producer, Annette Savitch; assistant director, Joe Camp III; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Sept. 20, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Dr. P - Billy Bob Thornton Roger - Jon Heder Amanda - Jacinda Barrett Lesher - Michael Clarke Duncan Sergeant Moorehead - Luis Guzman Ian - David Cross Diego - Horatio Sanz Becky - Sarah Silverman Walsh - Matt Walsh Eli - Todd Louiso
With: Jon Glaser, Paul Scheer, Ben Stiller.
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