You could call Mr. Woodcock the latest version of The Billy Bob Thornton Movie. You know, that movie where he plays ornery elder to assorted subordinates, each insult or physical assault a sign of his arrogance and faux-superiority, even as he’s waiting to be revealed as a decent guy who only needs to be appreciated. He is, of course, always smarter and faster than all his opponents. Whether you see him as the bully of your own childhood or the payback that bully so richly deserves, you tend not to see the Billy Bob Thornton character as you.
In the new version of the BBTM, Thornton plays a gym teacher with a tedious name, introduced as he’s pummeling little boys with basketballs, tormenting the ones who are overweight, stutter, or have asthma, infusing all of them with lifelong insecurities and nightmares. Johnny, a cute, freckle-faced boy, described by Woodcock as “fat [and] gelatinous,” grows up to be Seann William Scott. In so doing, he appears to have escaped his fellow victims’ pattern. In fact, John has written a best-selling self-help book, Letting Go, all about forgetting the past in order to move on.
If only. Within five minutes of the film’s start, John is revisiting his dismal past. Against the advice of his energetic (and self-named alcoholic) publicist Maggie (Amy Poehler), John accepts an invitation to go home to small-town Nebraska in order to attend the Cornival and receive the vaunted Corn Cob Key. He likes corn, he says cheerfully, and besides, he can visit his mom, Beverly (Susan Sarandon).
John’s triumphant return is cut short when he learns that his mother has a new boyfriend. “He’s so handsome sweet and considerate,” Beverly gushes, just before “he” enters — the door behind him opened onto brilliant, blinding light, so as to underscore John’s shock. You are not shocked at all, of course, as you have anticipated that Beverly’s Mr. Right is Mr. Woodcock.
“I’ve been thinking about meat all day long!” exclaims Woodcock, ready to sweep his date off to a meal at the local Italian joint. And with that, the competition is on, the son determined to make his apparently unsuspecting mother recognize that her suitor is in fact unsuitable, Woodcock set on proving his superiority one more time. Though John has supposedly thought his way through all his childhood hang-ups and anguish, he’s unable to stop himself. Lying in his childhood bedroom at night, he flips through his memory file of humiliations at Woodcock’s hands, while listening to him “pork” his ecstatic mother in the next room.
Seann William Scott (left), Billy Bob Thornton (center) and Susan Sarandon (right)
When Woodcock is around, which is often, John falls back into all his old fears and uncertainties, rushing to eat pizza slices and failing at athletic endeavors. Though John tries at first to bolster himself with pithy advice from his won book (“When you make a blame sandwich, you’ve got to be prepared to eat it yourself”), he’s soon reduced to horrific hijinks. Woodcock promotes John’s sense of helplessness, mistaking him for a burglar (who identifies himself as “John”) and beating him silly with a bat, ensuring that when he kisses and fondles Beverly in the kitchen, John is watching. When John tries to be “the man” for his mother and say he’s sorry, he encourages Woodcock to do the same: “I don’t do sorry,” sneers the nemesis. “Sorry’s for criminals and screw-ups and I’m neither.” Grrr.
Their competition takes them to the gym (this workout montage is predictable and joyless, but also mercifully brief) and a fairground (at every booth, Woodcock comes away with a stuffed animal and John looks increasingly deflated). Desperate, John enlists help from another former Woodcock victim, Nederman (Ethan Suplee), now working at the pizzeria and nursing his grudge against the man he believes ruined his life. John also runs into a childhood crush, Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller), but she provides only brief distraction, as he remains obsessively focused on showing up Woodcock.
In another movie, the premise — how a bully affects his victims — might have led to some insight, even some surprise. Here, it’s only a point of departure for obnoxious and unoriginal humor. When you learn that Woodcock has his own abusive father (Bill Macy, still offensive in his retirement home, muttering about “sodomites” and “pussies” from his wheelchair), well, you don’t really care. John’s a mama’s boy, Woodcock’s a daddy’s boy. They’re the perfect couple. The most pressing question that emerge is this: why does Beverly spend even a minute of her precious time putting up with either of them?