This Jon Heder thing needs to stop before it gets out of hand. I mean, OK, we all loved Napoleon Dynamite, or at least you all did. That movie’s success deservedly landed its star a few supporting roles in Hollywood stuff and a Saturday Night Live guest-hosting gig. That was all cool. Now, though, he’s the lead actor in School for Scoundrels, and while neither he nor the movie is terrible, Heder looks overextended. We shouldn’t be surprised, really. Last spring’s The Benchwarmers, a comedy in which he failed to outshine Rob Schneider or David Spade, should have clued us in that his talent wasn’t limitless. Yet evidently, his off-speed delivery, heavy voice, and lanky physique have convinced Hollywood casting directors that he’s the next Owen Wilson-like slacker-goofball comedy star. If so, they’re mistaken.

Heder plays Roger Waddell, a New York City meter maid who, despite the stacks of self-help books in his apartment, is such a loser that when he volunteers at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the boys keep rejecting him for other mentors. A friend steers him toward life coach Dennis Sherman, a.k.a. “Dr. P.” (Billy Bob Thornton), a man who teaches assertiveness and confidence to a classroom full of weak men, using a combination of tough love (“This ain’t a goddamn Tony Robbins seminar. If you’re looking for chicken soup for your soul, just get the fuck out!”) and some dubious bits of dating advice such as “Wherever you are, the place is lame,” and “Lie, lie, and lie some more.” Roger uses Dr. P.’s cues to make some headway with a woman living in his building, an Australian grad student named Amanda (Jacinda Barrett, working in her native accent, which perhaps explains why her acting for once doesn’t resemble waxworks).

The comedy doesn’t really get going until Dr. P. moves in on Amanda, forcing the student to stand up to his instructor. Thornton’s piss-and-vinegar approach is always welcome, but his playing of this role is also pretty cagey. The story hinges on whether Dr. P. really wants Amanda for himself or whether he’s wooing her as a way to test Roger’s mettle, and Thornton’s performance keeps us in suspense exactly as long as necessary. The struggle between Roger and Dr. P. yields up some choice bits, such as the one where two of Dr. P.’s students pose as cops and pepper-spray a handcuffed Roger for their own amusement, only to have their own cruel jest backfire on them. The climactic scene in an airplane resolves the story in a fairly clever way.


Yet the movie still falls short. Remaking an obscure 1960 British comedy starring Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim, director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky & Hutch) misfires as often as he hits, most notably in a misplayed subplot with Dr. P.’s assistant (Michael Clarke Duncan). Amanda remains a cipher, and Sarah Silverman is wasted as Amanda’s scary best friend, but then women have never interested Phillips. He’s better with male insecurity, and his drawing of the Roger/Dr. P. confrontation has real potential. Sadly, we never believe Heder could hold his own against Thornton at his most devious. This actor needs to take a cue from Napoleon and stay in the background. Let someone else carry the ticket.

 School for Scoundrels
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, and Jacinda Barrett. Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong, based on Stephen Potter’s books and Hal E. Chester and Patricia Moyes’ screenplay. Rated PG-13.