[9 April 2007]
School for Scoundrels, the 2006 version, is the tale of a nebbish named Roger (Jon Heder) who becomes locked in a vicious, gag-ridden one-upping contest with Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton), his DIY confidence coach. Plagued by an embarrassingly schlocky romantic subplot (one that doesn’t exactly highlight Heder’s post-Napoleon Dynamite potential), and jokes that not even a cast of otherwise brilliant Upright Citizens Brigade alums could make funny, School for Scoundrels is the kind of film from which you wouldn’t expect much, maybe just a few memorable quotes. It doesn’t deliver them.
What it does deliver, though, is enough scenes of unintentional testicular injury to keep the studio audience of America’s Funniest Home Videos in stitches for an eternity. It’s striking that while this 2006 version of School for Scoundrelsseems like little more than a venue for director Todd Phillips to showcase his flagrant disrespect for the sanctity of the male nutsack, the film is loosely based, on an uber-polite British comedy of the same name.
School For Scoundrels, or: How to Win Without Actually Cheating from 1959 is a quaint film in which a romantic underdog learns the confidence-boosting power of making someone else look like a schmuck, only to eventually sacrifice his newfound jerky ways in the name of true love. It’s dated, it’s barely bawdy, but it’s sort of intangibly comforting. Released on DVD no doubt to coincide with the remake’s debut on disc, the original School of Scoundrels is good for a titter, chuckle, or some other refined show of amusement.
Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) may be an early example of a character that is too good looking and put together to be as nerdy as we’re supposed to believe he is. He arrives at an institute dedicated to the teaching of “Lifemanship”, and sits in on class being taught by Mr. Potter (Alistair Sim). Potter really is classically stately – grandfatherly, even – and thus his lesson, as taught to a classroom of equally classic dorkwads sitting in folding chairs, carries with it some authority. “Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times,” explains Potter. “It is the art of making him feel that somewhere, somehow, he’s become less than you – less desirable, less worthy, less blessed.”
Henry meets one-on-one with Potter and explains his hard luck story. In a flashback, Henry bumps into April Smith (Janet Scott) at the tail end of a cartoonish bus chase. He proceeds to spit game so smooth that it calls the concept of his nerdiness into question. Soon, however, his inadequacies become clear. Henry gets vibed by everyone – coworkers, the guy who checks the reservations at a restaurant, and most notably the mustachioed Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Raymond joins Henry and April for dinner, at which point he unleashes clownings so subtle that Henry can only watch as his newly beloved is whisked away by the gap-toothed infiltrator. Raymond orders in French, he bamboozles April with his overblown sophistication, and he steamrolls through Raymond’s attempts to make conversation.
In a scene that resonates in uncomfortable ways for anyone for whom cars are a complete mystery, Henry attempts to gain the upper hand on Raymond by purchasing a car from a pair of archetypically unctuous used car salesman. He ends up getting a smoking, sputtering lemon straight out of a Looney Tunes episode. Between the crappy car and an embarrassing game of tennis, watched by April, in which Raymond utters the particularly grating Briticism, “hard cheese, old boy!” is uttered at least a thousand times, Henry decides he’s had enough.
Soon enough, trained in the fine art of Lifemanship and with Potter as his ally, Henry heads out to turn the tables on Raymond, not before suckering his coworkers, the used car salesmen, and otherwise running the first half of the film in conceptual reverse. In fact, most of the second half of the movie mirrors the first half, with the chump becoming the stud and the stud becoming the chump.
The newly Lifemanship-ized Henry seems intent on frustrating the hell out of Raymond in the interest of gaining the upper hand. On the way to a tennis rematch, Henry’s purposeful lateness reduces Raymond to a snarling curmudgeon of Mr. Wilson-esque proportions, and when the two finally arrive at the tennis court, things get even more frustrating – both for the Raymond and for the audience. It makes you wonder if it’s the contemporary attention span or something more fundamental that makes five minutes of the same joke on a tennis court an exercise in overkill, but you can’t help but enjoy the perfection with which Terry-Thomas plays “exasperated”.
A standard “the jig is up” ending in which Henry is outed as a practitioner of Lifemanship finds Raymond ratting and Mr. Potter inexplicably going mental, in perhaps the only real twist that the film offers, and like a lot of the movie, dammit, it’s kind of cute.
It probably says something about our contemporary condition that, in 1959, Professor Potter was teaching Henry to cleverly reverse the power-dynamic on those who would wrong him, whereas his 2006 analogue Dr. P is an active proponent of crushing people straight into the ground in order to get what he wants. That said though, it was probably the gag-ready premise of tit-for-tat over a girl that fueled the remake, not any particular statement on human ruthlessness in a hyper-capitalistic age.
The original School for Scoundrels isn’t the most captivating or funny tale of underdog triumph in cinematic history. With all its dated politesse, though, it paints a picture of a predictable, naively moralistic world that’s probably worth visiting sometimes, and might even be more entertaining than seeing Billy Bob Thornton get electrocuted in the ‘nads, depending on your mood.