No one does an accusing stare quite like Billy Bob Thornton, whose gift for unblinking steeliness gets put to good use in School For Scoundrels. Playing a dubious character from the radical fringe of the self-help world, Thornton runs a class for spineless men looking to improve their confidence. He uses the hulking Michael Clarke Duncan to enforce a regimen rooted in aggression and deception, but fear of Thornton's disapproval is what really keeps everyone in check. Bruises heal, but disappointment lasts a lifetime.
As usual, Thornton remains fully committed to the performance. Viewers could make a game of scanning his face for even the slightest hint of warmth. By the end of the film, that may be the surest source of entertainment.
Based on a 1960 film inspired by the humorous novels of English writer Stephen Potter, School For Scoundrels starts on sure footing. Star Jon Heder needs to show some range beyond his Napoleon Dynamite role, but he's convincing enough as a meek New York male meter-maid who's bullied at work and spends his free time surrounded by self-improvement books, and pining for luminous Australian neighbor Jacinda Barrett. Once enrolled in Thornton's Ross Jeffries-meets-Brad Pitt-in-Fight Club class, he starts to come into his own, too much so for Thornton's liking. To keep his alpha-dog position, Thornton sets out to seduce Barrett first, before Heder even has a chance.
But here, the film stalls out when it should shift into high gear. As with Old School, director Todd Phillips admirably throws in more emotional substance than most comedies with paintball sequences and male-rape jokes, but Thornton and Heder's game of one-upmanship gets gummed up by too many slow stretches and a late-arriving—and grating—turn by an uncredited Ben Stiller. Thornton keeps it grounded, and there's a lot of funny stuff going on in the margins thanks to ringers like David Cross, Sarah Silverman (as Barrett's unapologetically mean roommate), Luis Guzmán, Todd Louiso, Matt Walsh, and others. But it's all too flabby to be funny, almost as if it needed its own cruel life coach to whip it into shape.