“Mr. Woodcock” offers some fun pain but little gain
If you’ve never had a ruthless gym teacher, you probably can’t appreciate Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal as “Mr. Woodcock.” Those of us who were educated in an era when emotional and even a certain amount of physical abuse was tolerated within the school system can relate to Woodcock’s students. He bullies them incessantly, with put-downs and grueling exercises of the basketball-to-the-gut kind. For the middle-school age boys of the small Nebraska town where the film takes place, Woodcock is their boot camp drill sergeant in a sweat suit and whistle.
For good or bad, Woodcock’s insults and sadistic methods make up the only reasons to see this film that also stars Sean William Scott as one of Woodcock’s favorite targets who– flash forward –is a successful self-help book writer. Trouble is, Farley (Scott) comes back to Forest View as a celebrity only to find his widowed Mom (Susan Sarandon) has fallen in love with, guess who, the gym teacher of his nightmares. Thornton, as arguably one of America’s most versatile actors can drop deadpan one-liners as well as anyone, and the premise holds enough merit to keep things interesting. Sarandon, always a class act, brings some credibility to the preposterous silliness that surrounds her. For once, Scott is playing the straight guy, sort of, and can’t be completely blamed for the one dimensional nature of his character-the potential for satire here is simply not explored. A bigger problem for Scott’s character, and his career for that matter, is his stunning lack of charisma. Ladies and gentlemen-the new Ashton Kutcher!
Amy Poehler (TVs “Saturday Night Live”) provokes some chuckles as Farley’s alcoholic (every comedy seems to require one) hyper-agent and Ethan Suplee (TVs “My Name is Earl”) plays the same lovable/big schlub/best friend he’s known for.
One can’t help but wonder what the Coens or Farrellys might have done with this cast and premise-there would certainly have been more character development and you can bet your huskers, either team of directing brothers would have had a ball giving the humor more of a local flavor. (To its credit, “Mr. Woodcock” doesn’t completely ignore its small town environs; the film does little to distinguish itself).
There’s a lot of sexual innuendo and language in a film that seems to be marketed to young teenagers so parents should be cautioned. But some may find the punishment Mr. Woodcock dishes out to his students even more offensive. But they never had Mr. Embry in 8th grade P.E. who made us play bombardment-think killer dodgeball–if we wanted to get a good grade. For those who can relate, Thornton’s performance will be both terrifying and occasionally hilarious.
Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug references)