[29 September 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Did he rape you?” This question serves as a running gag throughout School for Scoundrels, a decidedly unfunny comedy about a wimp who becomes not a wimp. The question above pertains to the TA for the course the wimps take, called Be-A-Lion-In-Life and costing each student $5,000. The Significantly named Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan) serves as a model for burly, churlish behavior and the monstrous price to pay for being a wimp in the first place.
The primary wimp in School for Scoundrels is New York City meter-reader Roger. The fact that he’s played by Jon Heder tells you more than you need to know with regard to the limits of his “characterization,” but it’s worth noting that the Mormon Heder’s renowned disinclination to appear in movies featuring curse words does not extend to those featuring racist, misogynist, homophobic nincompoopery. That’s not to say that his Roger is not a nice nerd, or that he is consistently obnoxious in School. You might even commend his bad behavior, as it tends to be aimed at the man whom the movie urges you to hate, Roger’s teacher, the Lion in Life himself, Dr. P (surgically reconstructed Billy Bob Thornton).
Roger might have noticed this course is a sketchy proposition as it’s recommended to him by Ian (David Cross), right after he tells Roger not to come back to the local Big Brother HQ, as his little mentees keep rejecting him. Crushed, Roger begins to cry, and Ian is so put out by the sight that he imagines the course—which helped him be able to date “two different Asian chicks” at the same time—will also help his sudden non-friend.
The class is filled with Roger-like “losers” played by TV stars, like Walsh (Matt Walsh), Diego (Horatio Sanz), and Eli (Todd Louiso). When they’re not cowering in their Learning Annex chair-desks as Dr. P glares at them (“How many of you retards own a self-help book?”), the boys are asking dimwitted questions like “What exactly does this class teach?” The answer is simple, proclaims Dr. P: the class will teach them to get what they want, namely, “the tit” (which he draws crudely on the blackboard). “I want the tit,” mumble the students feebly. To reinforce the distinction between who they are and who they want to be, Dr. P pronounces, “There are two types of men in this world. Those who run shit like me, and those who eat shit, like you.”
Roger wants to run shit. Or at least, he wants to gain the attention of his vivacious neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). Though her roommate Becky (Sarah Silverman) delights in demeaning Roger whenever they spot him in the hallway, Amanda is almost kind to him. At least she doesn’t sneer outright when he comes to the door and faints dead away (he’s prone to “panic attacks”). Instead, she hauls him inside and holds frozen peas to his head until he gets up the nerve to ask her out and, for no decipherable reason, she says yes. Reading off cue cards during their date, Roger determines to “be dangerous,” by stealing lobsters from a tank and freeing them in a nearby and no doubt polluted river. Amanda giggles and sighs: looks like Roger’s a star.
But if Roger is pleased with the female-oriented part of his coursework, he and the other boys are increasingly troubled by their trainers’ methods. This is to be expected in a film where paintballs shot to the groin count for hellacious hilarity. Directed by Todd Phillips, its jokes resemble those in Old School, all pratfally-farty-naked-bummy sorts of gags. The rape joke emerges among these, as Lesher appears leering at the naked bums of several tied-up students, who subsequently utter the question whenever his name comes up.
Lesher isn’t the only focus of the white students’ fear (Diego is lumped among them, as is former student/current psycho/Will-Ferrell-in-his-mommy’s-basement-wannabe Lonnie [Ben Stiller]). Another running gag that reinforces the threat posed by large black men is focused through Roger, who is early on humiliated by a couple of street bullies, Bee Bee (Antoine DeRay Davis) and Lawrence (Omar J. Dorsey), not only violently reject Roger’s attempt to ticket their car by taking his uniform and standard issue New Balance shoes. Following his classes with Dr. P, Roger heads to the basketball court where the scary guys play, to demand his shoes back. In front of their friends on the court, Bee Bee and Lawrence are doing no such thing (“Boy done slipped and fell into a pile of ass-whuppin’”). That is, until one guy’s furious mama shows up and insists he give up the shoes (shoes he has no business desiring in the first place, but, you know, you suspend disbelief).
This particular humiliation takes up about two minutes of screen time, but it makes the world right for Roger, who watches mama’s mastery of her son in awe (“Don’t make me start prayin’, boy,” she says, upon which he is instantly whimpering and compliant). Now he can go on to do battle with Lesher and Dr. P, who makes a play for Amanda. While the doctor’s betrayal horrifies Roger and his fellow weenies, the storyline that has Aussie grad student Amanda falling for Roger and then Dr. P is on its face ridiculous to the point of being offensive.
But again, this is a Todd Phillips movie and so, you get what you expect. Amanda’s demoted here from object of desire to prop, so wan and undirected that she’ll fall for whoever happens to be winning their contest at any given moment. Even if Dr. P is a tyrant and a cheat, his lessons for winning women pass for wisdom, because, you know, girls love “dangerous” men, even if boys are afraid of them.