EmptyAs "Mr. Woodcock" demonstrates, a great premise can generate a lot of goodwill and almost overcome an uneven script. So too can expert performances, supplied here by Billy Bob Thornton and Seann William Scott as acrimonious competitors. This New Line Cinema release has enough laughs to generate moderate boxoffice business, but it doesn't break past the middling level.
Still, it definitely will touch a nerve with a lot of male viewers. To anyone who wasn't a jock, high school gym class was a special source of dread. This film taps right into those painful memories with its funny opening scene, when the tyrannical gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock (Thornton), runs roughshod over a bunch of uncoordinated geeks. One of them is chubby John Farley, who cowers when Woodcock singles him out for punishment.
Cut to 15 years later, and Farley (now played by Scott) is the author of a best-selling self-help book titled, "Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past." When he returns to his hometown in Nebraska, he is horrified to learn that his mother (Susan Sarandon) is having hot and heavy sex with his nemesis, Mr. Woodcock, and is engaged to marry him. Farley's initial encounters with his old tormentor suggest that Woodcock remains the same soft-spoken sadist, and Farley sets out to sabotage the wedding plans.
Given the nature of comedies about warring rivals, you know where the story is likely to end. It might have been more refreshing had Woodcock remained a monster from start to finish, but at least he doesn't go all soft and squishy. Thornton has been known to ham it up, but this is an understated, masterfully controlled performance. While he's the epitome of cool, Scott's Farley is the one who goes hysterical. Surprisingly, Scott's performance matches Thornton's; their verbal and physical duels keep us chuckling.
Sarandon, on the other hand, has a rather lackluster role that leaves her stranded. But some of the supporting players are vivid. Ethan Supplee is amusing as an old pal of Farley's who is still terrified of Woodcock's bullying. Amy Poehler's role as a bitchy book publicist is one-dimensional, but she brings a lot of flair to the stock jokes. Bill Macy has a juicy cameo as Mr. Woodcock's even more obnoxious father.
Director Craig Gillespie has another movie opening next month that screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Lars and the Real Girl," which is a somewhat quirkier comedy. The two movies establish him as a promising comedy director.
"Mr. Woodcock" benefits from a few hilarious sight gags. Technical credits are solid, and while the movie runs out of steam as it plods toward its predictable conclusion, at least it's mercifully short. This picture might not be a classic, but it's shrewd enough not to wear out its welcome.
New Line Cinema
Avery Pix, Landscape Pictures
Screenwriters: Michael Carnes, Josh Gilbert
Producers: Bob Cooper, David Dobkin
Executive producers: Diana Pokorny, Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Karen Lunder
Director of photography: Tami Reiker
Production designer: Alison Sadler
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Co-producer: Brian Inerfeld
Co-executive producers: Michele Weiss, Keith Goldberg
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Kevin Tent
Mr. Woodcock: Billy Bob Thornton
John Farley: Seann William Scott
Beverly: Susan Sarandon
Maggie: Amy Poehler
Tracy: Melissa Sagemiller
Nedderman: Ethan Suplee
Nedderman's Brother: Jacob Davich
Young Farley: Kyley Baldridge
Young Nedderman: Alec George
Mr. Woodcock's Father: Bill Macy
Running time -- 87 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13