We needed another Billy Bob Thornton-as-a-curmudgeon comedy about as much as we needed, say, a third Rush Hour. And the finished product is so lethargic that Mr. Woodcock would've made it run laps.
Whereas most kids have a pushy, thorn-in-your-side gym teacher growing up, John Farley (Seann William Scott) was taught by the devil incarnate, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), whose whistle might as well have been his pitchfork. As a teenager, Farley was Woodcock's prime target, an honor that routinely led to (over)weight jokes and dodgeball beanings, but 13 years later Farley seems to have gotten the last laugh. He is now a best-selling self-help author--thanks to his book inspired more than a little by his former P.E. tormenter--and returns home to Nebraska a full-blown celebrity. Things have come full circle--almost. Full circle comes when Farley learns that his mom, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), is now dating Woodcock and class is once again in session. After a few botched attempts by Farley and his childhood friend/co-victim Needleman (Ethan Suplee) to dig up dirt on Woodcock, Farley goes straight to his mom to prevent her from marrying his archenemy. And before long, teacher and student return to their old stomping grounds, the school gymnasium, to duel over Beverly.
Once upon a time--2003, to be exact--Billy Bob Thornton was a fresh bit of casting as a miserable, crotchety Santa Claus; he has since appeared as a nuanced Bad Santa no less than twice, and the third time, as Mr. Woodcock, is anything but a charm. As his latest grumpy old-ish man, Billy Bob seldom imparts humor that doesn't involve chucking a ball at an unsuspecting teenager's head. At times in the movie it seems as though even he is tired of the same character. Speaking of playing the same character, Frat Pack wannabe Scott doesn't fare any better. He and Thornton have their moments of chemistry, but when Scott is without proper assistance from a co-star or a pratfall, his acting is exposedas rather unfunny. He again appears unable to succeed at, well, under-the-top comedy. Luckily, the supporting cast picks up some of the leads' slack to balance it all out. Sarandon, her days as a leading lady sadly a thing of the past, adds desperately needed warmth to an otherwise inane farce. And, in a too-small role, SNL's Amy Poehler, as Farley's heavily sarcastic publicist, manages to score Woodcock's biggest laughs. Not that that's a particularly tall order in this case.
Mr. Woodcock is the first of director Craig Gillespie's two movies in two months--October's Lars and the Real Girl is next--and he essentially has nowhere to go but up. The newcomer shows some comedic talent but certainly not in any way we haven't seen a million times--in 2007 alone. Heavy on notions of comedy but light on execution thereof, Woodcock succumbs to the same conventionalism that claims almost every other non-Apatow-affiliated mainstream comedy (yes, it is necessary to continuously reference the genre's gold standard). But it's not all Gillespie's fault. Writers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert would've been on to something had they made Woodcock the quirky Freudian dramedy it probably wanted to be on paper, but they tried instead for the ol' crowd pleaser. As a result, audiences will anticipate each attempted joke, the direction of the story and the ending. They may even laugh, too, but only out of sheer habit.
Hollywood.com rated this film 1 1/2 stars.