There’s more genuine humor to be gleaned from saying “Woodcock” over and over again than from watching “Mr. Woodcock,” a wan comic effort barely elevated a few notches by Billy Bob Thornton’s passive-aggressive villainy as the titular gym teacher from hell who becomes a young man’s potential stepdad from hell. Initially slated for 2006 but delayed by behind-the-scenes wrangling and extensive reshoots, the New Line release should attract some mainstream biz with its name cast before weak word of mouth sends it to the ancillary showers.
Having exorcised his childhood demons by writing a popular self-help tome, former fat kid John Farley (Seann William Scott) returns home to find his mother, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), dating the source of those demons — namely, Mr. Woodcock (Thornton), the monstrous P.E. teacher whose classes amounted to government-sanctioned child abuse.
When his attempts to make nice are met with withering indifference from mom’s new fiance, John goes on the offensive, tossing aside his own lessons about “letting go” of the past. Haunted by flashbacks of his younger self (Kyley Baldridge) being humiliated and physically pummeled by Mr. Woodcock, John tries to undermine his nemesis at every turn — only to end up getting humiliated and physically pummeled anew.
On paper, it’s a bracingly direct and fertile comic premise, with a twisted sub-Oedipal kick: Almost every joke is predicated on John’s fury and revulsion at the thought of his mom sleeping with the enemy (whose impressive virility is commented on by more than one bystander).
And the film does have a not-so-secret weapon in Thornton, whose contemptuous drawl is the perfect vessel for Woodcock’s casual misanthropy (“Lots of losers out there, I guess,” he says matter-of-factly when he hears John’s book is a bestseller). Thesp even makes his no-bull caveman act attractive enough to halfway sell the idea of Beverly falling for such an irredeemable lout.
But Thornton’s nicely underplayed malevolence is the only consistent factor in a comedy that plays its central antagonistic relationship for easy laughs, but lacks the guts to follow it to its nasty, logical conclusion. Instead, script resorts to obvious red herrings and the sort of pat uplift you’d expect from … well, a bestselling self-help book.
From its lengthy gestation and production woes (although Craig Gillespie retains directing credit, producer David Dobkin was brought in for reshoots) to its inane and misleading ad campaign (resorting to the same suggestive testicular imagery used by ads for the recent “Balls of Fury” and 1998’s “BASEketball”), everything about “Mr. Woodcock” suggests a muddled project with no clear idea what kind of movie it wants to be.
Amy Poehler adds some mildly amusing but wholly irreverent bitchery as John’s high-functioning alcoholic agent, while Melissa Leo delivers a succulent five-minute turn as Woodcock’s randy ex that makes the viewer want to follow her into another movie. Both actresses are better served than Melissa Sagemiller as John’s blah romantic interest.
Tech credits are solid, the standout being some excellent stuntwork during the pic’s numerous physical pratfalls.