School for Scoundrels (2006) Review

It's not that any film is beyond being remade, certainly not when forty-six years have passed, but that the remake almost certainly ought to have some intention of being somewhere on a par with the original. Unfortunately, School For Scoundrels is a very long way away from the original British comedy in the same way that my scribbling on a notepad whilst very bored is a long way from Michelangelo's Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Or how the combined acting talents of those playing any and all members of the Dingle family in Emmerdale is a long way from that of Robert De Niro. Or how the Swiftmobile bought by an eager-to-impress Ian Carmichael is very far from being a Rolls-Royce Phantom. In brief, it's a very long way from being anywhere near as good as the original British comedy.

Clearly, the intention behind the making of this was an enthusiastic Harvey Weinstein showing a copy of the 1960 School For Scoundrels and claiming that the average punter would no more know Alastair Sim than they would the entire human genome, he set director Todd Phillips and writer Scot Armstrong on adapting it for a modern audience. "And it's gotta have Billy Bob Thornton in it!" is what he likely yelled in their direction before the door slammed behind them. Whilst Weinstein is not entirely mistaken in his belief, he could perhaps have pitched to a pair who were actually capable of writing a comedy, had some understanding of satire and had something in line for Billy Bob beyond a reprise of his Bad Santa. It offers perhaps the least entertaining sitting of comedy beyond a double bill of Jenny McCarthy's Dirty Love and Rob Schneider's Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and is structured so poorly as to suggest it was edited by a cat with its paws wrapped in bandages.

School For Scoundrels stars John Heder as Roger, who's too easygoing for his own good. Bullied at work, harassed by those he issues tickets to in his capacity as a meter maid and rejected even by those kids that he tries to help at a local leisure complex, he's close to hitting rock bottom. The self-help books that he reads don't help - nor do the shorts that he must wear to work and the little electric buggy that he drives - so when he's found crying in the street after his latest setback, a friend passes him a phone number for a secret class run by a man known only as Dr P (Thornton) along with his assistant Lesher (Michael Duncan Clarke). The very short first class sets out the aim of Dr P's course. It is to make the losers sat before him into men. To make them winners. Or, in the parlance of the jungle, to make them into lions. Soon he has them screaming, "I want the tit!", starting confrontations in public and lying, cheating and backstabbing all the way to the top. But Dr P has a special interest in Roger. Or, as is more correct, the girl that he loves from afar, Roger's beautiful neighbour Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). Meeting Amanda in a bookshop and asking her to join him for a coffee, Dr P sets about romancing her, telling her that he is a children's surgeon and that she reminds him of his wife, who, very sadly, passed away some years before. Roger, standing outside in the rain, can't believe what he's seeing. Game on, says Dr P.

What was particularly enjoyable about the original School For Scoundrels was that Ian Carmichael, in his learning lifemanship from Alastair Sim, had the unwavering support of the school behind him. Sim aided and abetted Carmichael throughout his teaching as well as in his getting on up on Terry Thomas, which lent the film a natural structure. The early part had Carmichael being trampled on by just about everyone that he met while the final third saw him taking his revenge. Not that he was ever particularly unpleasant, more that his effortless charm won the love of Janette Scott, leaving cad Terry Thomas fuming at where his arrogance, bad manners and underhandedness had taken him. This remake isn't half as charming a film. Instead, this largely boils down to a conflict between Dr P and Roger without us ever really getting to know either one. Where the 1960 film allowed us plenty of Carmichael, Scott and Thomas to better understand the predicament in which the former found himself, this presents us with nothing more than sketches in which Roger is initially made to feel pathetic before, thanks to Dr P's lessons in lifemanship, he bounds back. Yes, he does eventually get his sneakers back, picks a fight over a danish and asks Amanda out on a date but these are random events in Roger's life, not anything like a development of the character. Indeed, he really doesn't look so very much more confident at the end than he did in the beginning, leaving one questioning the value of this course. And it's hard, so very hard, to believe that a couple of gang members who'd once shot at Roger so be so cowed by their mother as to give him back the shoes that they'd stolen from him.

Without a third party, School For Scoundrels eventually comes to Roger and Dr P fighting it out for Amanda's heart. This being rather a small story, it turns surprisingly nasty very quickly yet every moment of comedy is so poor a fit that they might as well have shuffled the pages of three or four different films and picked ones at random to film with the chosen material not actually ever being written for laughs. Would anyone, as is presented in the film, actually write, "Suck this" on a dog? That's not really very funny yet is presented here as one of the major gags in the movie. Similarly, there's a gag about a smelly sock, a bad-tempered tennis game - like the original - and, raising one very late laugh, Dr P placing the paddles of a defibrillator on his own testicles. And there's a very nasty feeling that comes later in the film when it appears that Dr P has brought the rest of the class to his side in the fight with Roger, leaving any sympathy for this class of losers evaporating like alcohol. A cameo from Ben Stiller turns things around slightly but not enough.

Other than it not being funny, the problem with this version of School For Scoundrels is that unlike the original, there's no swing in Roger's character. Carmichael went from one of life's loser to a winner thanks to oneupmanship with everything he did looking assured, confident and so very charming. Roger and Dr P, on the other hand, bicker, squabble and scrap so like a couple of awful men that the likelihood of Amanda ending up with either is as remote as the two of them finding romance with each other. And, given the unpleasantness of their encounters, that's not going to happen. It's easy to see how Janette Scott would have ended up with Carmichael, much less so here and in spite of the happiness of the ending, you do wish that Amanda discovers that she was simply caught somewhere between the dick-swinging of Dr P and Roger and, like Glenne Headly in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, teaches them both a lesson. That would make for a much better film than that which we have here.


While this doesn't look terribly bad, it's not that impressive either. Instead, anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, it does no more or no less than what is required of it as a mainstream DVD release. The picture is certainly sharp enough but is let down by a rather drab look in the original film. There are no obvious signs of print damage but, then again, this film only dates from last year so, really, there shouldn't be. Look closely at certain scenes, particularly in the not-actually-that-fast freeway driving near the end and there are some problems in the encoding but watched at a reasonable distance, it's nothing that would present itself as a problem. The DD5.1 track is much the same. While it's certainly capable and the dialogue is generally clear - there's a couple of lines that will require a moment of silence to pick up - it's really the kind of film that would have sufficed with a stereo track. And, given the general lack of anything from the rear speakers, that's largely what we have.


Commentary: Director Todd Phillips and writer Scot Armstrong keep the track moving for the length of this feature-length commentary but it's often a dull affair with the two of them backslapping one another over their working out of the movie, their casting of actors and how funny it is. One doesn't learn very much about the making of the film from this track nor the actors and there's only a scant acknowledgement of the original film, leading to this being quite a dull commentary throughout.

Alternate Ending (4m06s): Without the showdown on the place, this sees Roger own up to Amanda in the queue to board the plane with, happily for romantics, much the same conclusion. Though without the ball-frying gag with the defibrillator, which automatically makes it much less of an ending.

Inside The World Of School For Scoundrels (19m31s): "In the next half hour..." That will be a US television half hour, then, being one that lasts less than twenty minutes, which, one assumes, this promotional piece was made for. It's not really a making-of, more a series of interviews with the cast and principal crew, all of whom try desperately to be as funny as they were in the film. They aren't and given that School For Scoundrels isn't as funny as it ought to have been, this will leave an audience straight-faced with its complete lack of laughs.

Finally, there's a Gag Reel (2m12s) and a Trailer (1m43s).

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