"Mr. Woodcock," a title one suspects was thought of before a story was constructed around it, has been a long time coming. Principal photography wrapped over two years ago and, since then, numerous reshoots and even more numerous release dates have slid by. Viewers expecting a disaster from the finished picture will not find one. The film, a bittersweet comedy with an overall gentler tone than the trailers and television ads would have you believe, is enjoyable enough while it lasts, but also instantly disposable. There are few outward signs that the production was a troubled one, but the fact that it was isn't terribly surprising. What was surely intended by the studio to be raucous and hip is merely pleasant and safe. There are a few funny moments, but only a few. There are a few dramatic moments that ring true, but only a few. The majority of the running time is filled by material that is bland and just sort of there.
John Farley (Seann William Scott) is the author of a new best-selling self-help book called "Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past." His path toward motivational writing is not by accident; haunted by the terrible memories of his cruel and violent middle school gym teacher Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), it has taken John thirteen years to gain back the self-esteem he lost during those turbulent prepubescent times. When it is announced that his small Nebraskan hometown is planning to honor him during their week-long cornival celebration, John puts his book tour on hold and returns to his old stomping grounds. He has barely reunited with his loving mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon) before the unthinkable is discovered: she has been dating Mr. Woodcock for the last five minutes. With his awful past suddenly revived and brought to the present, John makes it his mission to convince his mom that her new beau is bad news. When his attempts fail, he sets out to rustle up any dirty laundry he and former classmate Nedderman (Ethan Suplee) can find on the monstrous teacher.
For his feature debut, director Craig Gillespie has wrangled together a better-than-average cast headlined by Seann William Scott (2005's "The Dukes of Hazzard
"), Billy Bob Thornton (2007's "The Astronaut Farmer
") and Susan Sarandon (2005's "Elizabethtown
"). They put in valiant work with little creative payoff, but are unable to raise "Mr. Woodcock" above the level of affably humdrum and by-the-numbers. One of the biggest flaws in the script by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert is a doozy: there is no way, under any circumstances, that a middle school teacher as physically and verbally abusive as Mr. Woodcock would be able to keep his job in the year 2007. That he is being awarded "Educator of the Year" and that, at the ceremony, not a single person has heard word one about his teaching methods when John calls him out on them, is a stretch of disbelief that cannot be overcome. At some point during the film's development, this glaring plot hole should have been recognized and dealt with.
"Mr. Woodcock" additionally loses steam due to a schizophrenic tone and from fear of taking chances. As a friendly PG-13 effort, the movie is not cutthroat enough to work as satire and not ballsy enough to fly as a consistent laugher. There is exactly one downright hilarious line of dialogue, delivered with priceless panache by Melissa Leo (2007's "Stephanie Daley
") as Mr. Woodcock's uninhibited ex-wife, and then several chuckles throughout. Likewise, a couple serious scenes between John and mom Beverly are nicely handled, with Seann William Scott and Susan Sarandon building a believable mother-daughter relationship. The problem is that the overall mixture of broad humor and more low-key, almost indie-style flourishes, is uneasy and lacking in confidence. The film's narrative is one that wanders a lot without a detectable direction, picking up spare subplots along the way, such as the nothing romance between John and young school teacher Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller), and then forgetting about them as the script goes off on a different tangent.
"Mr. Woodcock" is far from badit's better, for example, than 2006's "School for Scoundrels
," an alarmingly similar film where the recently typecast Billy Bob Thornton also played the smarmy antagonistbut it also isn't very memorable. Seann William Scott is quite charismatic as nice-guy John Farley, and Susan Sarandon treats her part with the same concentration and commitment she would a prestigious drama. Amy Poehler (2007's "Blades of Glory
") also shows up for a spell as John's alcoholic agent Maggie Hoffman and stands out more than the subpar writing she has been given. Spending an hour and a half with these people is painless, to be sure, but there is a sneaking suspicion that the released version of the film is not up to snuff with the one this cast initially signed on for. When the final frame exits the screen, so does the viewer's thoughts about it.