Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Ethan Suplee, Melissa Sagemiller
MPAA Rating: (for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference)
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 9/14/07
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Review by Mark Dujsik
If the titular character's name were treated as a joke, I would assuredly say that Mr. Woodcock is a one-joke movie. As it is, I'm just quite confused about what the joke of the movie actually is. What's there is that the title character is a jerk, while there's also the fact that the alleged hero doesn't like him that much. What it comes off as is a comedy that assumes its basic premise (and title) is funny enough to warrant not expanding upon the concept or even fleshing it out enough to throw in a few jokes within that concept. Mr. Woodcock doesn't insult its audience with a pandering overcompensation, but the movie doesn't think much of us in the way it presents familiar jokes with a sense of forced inevitability. Part of the problem is the material itself, which has little possibilities, and the rest is the execution, which misses the potentially funny undertones and, as a result, turns them into awkward ones. I'd be lying if I said the movie was a laughless affair, but the few and far between chuckles and an amusing performance from Amy Poehler only keep it from being a painfully unfunny experience.
Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) is a terror to the kids to whom he teaches physical education. Anyone he catches speaking out of turn, being misinformed of the rules of kickball, coming unprepared, or, heaven forbid, having asthma is made to run laps. He's not above throwing the occasional basketball at a kid while he's running said laps and knocking the kid down either. One of the kids, a formerly chubby boy whom Woodcock forced into doing pull-ups in his underwear for not having the proper gym uniform, has grown up and written a popular self-help book about getting past one's past. He's John Farley (Seann William Scott), and while his manager Maggie (Poehler) would rather that her client continue with his profitable book tour, John discovers he's to be the recipient of his hometown's highest honor: the Corncob Key, a prestigious award only given to those who have made an impact on the world outside of the sleepy town of Forest Meadow, Nebraska. Upon returning to his boyhood home and reuniting with his mom Beverly (Susan Sarandon), John finds out his mother has been dating Woodcock for five months. John is really, really upset by this news.
Or maybe he's more upset because Woodcock doesn't remember him, because, as Woodcock says, he taught a lot of chubby kids. Or maybe John's torn by the irony of writing a book about letting go of the past only to be confronted by it head on. Or maybe he's just got a seriously unaddressed Oedipus complex. The first possibility is all on Woodcock and the only joke about his character. He's a jerk, plain and simple, and while Billy Bob Thornton can now do this kind of role in his sleep, it's become old hat. Familiarity has brought about monotony, and as Woodcock is written, he's completely unsympathetic, no matter (and in part because of) how well Thornton can yell without raising his voice, show contempt with a simple stare, or toss out insults without changing his vocal inflection. We're not supposed to like Woodcock, but we don't even pity his gruff, hostile attitude, even after meeting his father (Bill Macy), who might be worse than the son. For the second possibility, we have flashbacks, showing a few of the many ways John was emotionally traumatized by Woodcock, including a cup check with a baseball bat.
There's also John's old classmate Needleman (Ethan Suplee), who works at a pizza shop in town and helps John dig up dirt on Woodcock. That's after Needleman and his co-workers go through a list of phrases to describe what Woodcock is doing to Beverly without using the F-word. This brings us to the third, most probable, and most comically overlooked possibility. The movie boils down to a competition between Woodcock and John for the love of Beverly. It starts a squabble over the bill at dinner, turns into a display of prowess at the games at the annual carnival (the town calls it a "cornival"), progresses to John spying on Woodcock, and ends, unavoidably, with an actual fight between the two men. The jokes in the progression are obvious, and the movie plays a game with how long it can hold out on the preordained scene where John catches Woodcock and Beverly having sex. It's so apparent, this Freudian subtext, and yet so wasted on pratfalls and John going from normal to crazy as soon as the script requires him to. Instead of going along with the central story, we sit and wait for Poehler to show up and be unapologetically crass and actually give the material some bite.
Mr. Woodcock ends like most of these things do with a scene in which the "hero" learns that the target of his hatred isn't as horrible as he's assumed, but in this case, he's still a jerk. The problem isn't that neither character is respectively irredeemably awful and irritatingly hollow (although that's part of it) but that their both surrounded by a movie that has no idea what to do with them or the situation in which they find themselves.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.