Pretty hard to imagine now, but Billy Bob Thornton was once considered to be something of a genius long ago, when he rose from obscurity as the maverick indie auteur behind Slingblade. Since, Thornton has directed two pictures, but acted in several dozen, some good, many others work-for-hire junk such as this. Mr. Woodcock is a one-note gag of a premise, which finds Thornton wearing himself a sizable hole in the floor of his comfort zone, as a mean man who says extremely nasty things to children.
The formula worked in Bad Santa, and, to a lesser extent, in Bad News Bears, but flops here, because instead of those boozed-up losers, Thornton's Mr. Woodcock is merely a petty little sadist in zip-up sweats. He's one of those loathsome creeps who runs a middle school gym as if it's an army barracks, bellowing insults and abuse at his charges. (His favorite command? "Take a lap.")
John Farley (Seann William Scott) is a former Woodcock "victim" who overcame his childhood demons to become a successful self-help author he's all about positive thinking and letting the past go. Farley, however, finds it increasingly hard to practice what he preaches; when he returns to his small Midwestern town to accept an award, he discovers that his old nemesis Woodcock is "boning his mom," Beverly (Susan Sarandon, whose skills are completely wasted here). This leads to an escalating war between the teacher and ex-pupil, who's determined to expose Woodcock as the miserable tyrant he is, though half the town seems to worship the ground beneath his sneakers.
Not a moment of this is funny or believable. Woodcock is such a vicious turd that no adult would waste a moment taking him seriously, let alone risk humiliation trying to bring him down. There's no clear reason why Sarandon would fall for him, or anything resembling human motivation in the worthless script, which was apparently hammered out by trained apes from outtakes of Meet the Parents and similar dreck like The Ex. Really, having put the words "Wood" and "Cock" together, what more do these comedy wizards need to do? Not much, as the script is so lazy it fails to resolve subplots, like Farley's budding romance with an old classmate (the charmingly bland Melissa Sagemiller) or the book tour he's supposed to resume. Amy Poehler as Farley's boozy, cynical publicist Maggie Hoffman gets the only laughs. She has no time for the syrupy small town sentiment of the film's conclusion, and neither should we.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].