Black comedy can be a tricky business. Go too far and you’re out on a limb. Don’t go far enough and you risk timidity and pointlessness.
Writer-director Todd Phillips’ “School for Scoundrels” gets it just about right for the first half hour or so. As a short film about a really bad day in the life of Roger, a depressed New York meter reader, it’s just about perfect.
In the central role, Jon Heder, the goofily wholesome star of “Napoleon Dynamite,” finally gets a chance to prove that he’s not a one-hit wonder. Surrounded by self-help books, incapable of making small talk with a girl, Roger is stripped of everything but his underwear by a couple of street kids who shoot out his tires and send him into a panic attack.
Of course things only get worse—much, much worse. While he’s entitled to a counseling session with another cop, his insensitive counselor and comrades turn it into a laughfest at his expense. He breaks down and cries when he learns that he’s even been rejected as a Big Brother. And who can blame him?
Phillips and Heder establish just the right tone for these succinct early scenes. But once Roger decides to do something about his seemingly terminal geekiness, by paying $5,000 to a smooth con artist named Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), the movie starts to lose its grip and the darkness takes over.
What’s supposed to be funny is more often simply ghoulish. When the competitive Dr. P uses insults to stir Roger and his classmates to use confrontation rather than avoid it, Thornton earns his laughs. But when Dr. P moves in on Roger’s girlfriend, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), and does everything he can to make Roger appear to be the stalker, the movie turns creepy.
It’s not Thornton’s fault. In fact, this may be his best work since “Bad Santa,” which also liberated a gleefully anti-social aspect of his personality. Michael Clarke Duncan is also quite scary/funny as Dr. P’s stern but flexible sidekick, Lesher, and there are showy roles for Luis Guzman as the cop/counselor, Sergeant Moorehead, and Sarah Silverman as Amanda’s amusingly aggressive roommate, Becky.
The uneven script by Phillips and Scot Armstrong (they also collaborated on “Old School” and “Starsky and Hutch”) is a loose update of Robert Hamer’s subversive 1960 satire, “School for Scoundrels, or How to Win Without Actually Cheating,” which was based on Stephen Potter’s books about the varieties of British one-ups-manship.
Transplanted to contemporary New York, the story no longer quite fits the landscape, which may be the central problem. It’s somehow easier to imagine upper-class British twits playing these games.
But if you’re willing to put up with this sense of dislocation as well as the movie’s wild variations in tone, Phillips does generate some laughs. The actors, down to the smallest supporting role, could not be better cast. And Heder’s distinctive, toothy charm almost manages to hold the whole thing together.