It isn’t a lot funnier, it’s certainly far from a great comedy, and it’ll probably play better when accompanied by the lower prices and lower expectations of a rented DVD. Still, even an improvement this small is worth noting, if not worth running out to the theater for. The opening scene takes place in a school gym full of 10-year-olds, listening in terror to the overly loud sound of a basketball being bounced by the titular P.E. teacher (Billy Bob Thornton), wearing a glare that says, “I hate my life and everything in it.” Woodcock — at least his first name isn’t Dick — spends his time tormenting the fat kids in his charge. One of them grows up to be John Farley (Seann William Scott), a best-selling self-help author who’s about to plug his latest book on Oprah. John interrupts his book tour when an opportunity presents itself to return to his tiny Nebraska hometown and lord his success over all the people who used to ignore him. His mission quickly deflates, though, when he discovers that his widowed mom (Susan Sarandon, grievously overqualified for what she’s given to do here) is now dating Mr. Woodcock.
Say this for Seann William Scott: The guy knows his limitations. Even though he’s been playing the same character ever since he introduced the moviegoing public to Stifler, he’s been able to work enough variations on that one type to keep us from getting tired of his act. There’s no shortage of roles in Hollywood that are pitched at his narrow dramatic range, and it’s easy to see him soldiering on well into his middle years playing cheating husbands and shifty lawyers. He’s certainly more of a match for Thornton than Jon Heder was in School for Scoundrels, and he makes it very credible that John forgets his own self-help precepts and gets sucked into a bunch of stupid macho pissing contests with Woodcock.
Those pissing contests and the slapstick comedy they engender remain fairly predictable, and John’s public freak-out when former pupils give Woodcock glowing testimonials is only about a third as appalling as it should have been. Only about a third of the jokes hit home, too, though there’s one big laugh when John wheels Woodcock down the street on an ambulance gurney, and Amy Poehler kicks all kinds of ass as John’s literary agent. (Her entire character can be encapsulated in the bit with her snapping at a flight attendant, waving around her empty miniature liquor bottle and saying, “Can I get a real bottle here? I’m an alcoholic, not a Barbie doll.”) The film, which was reportedly re-shot extensively, does its best to tie up dangling story ends like why Woodcock attracts women when he’s such an almighty grouch. Yet for all the trouble and talent that went into it, Mr. Woodcock at its best only grows to be tolerably mediocre.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Seann William Scott. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert. Rated PG-13.