Directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Ethan Suplee, Melissa Sagemiller, Jacob Davich. (2007, PG-13, 87 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Sept. 14, 2007
Thornton is fast becoming the master of what can only be termed “deadpan malignancy.” What other actor working can communicate as much disdain, as much disrespect, as much malicious indifference without even a word? Others can convince you of murderous intent, but no one else can give you a look that says, “If I had my way, you’d all be shoveling my shit for a living because that’s all you’re good for.” And it’s a good thing, too, because he’s coming to rely on that look more and more as his career goes on. Mr. Woodcock is the third in Thornton’s unofficial “exhausted-contempt” series – after Bad Santa and Bad News Bears – in which he plays a character whose complete indifference to the rules of etiquette and the feelings of other people leads him to acts of comic violence against the least among us: the young, the old, the infirm, Woodcock co-star Scott. Thornton plays the title character, a gym teacher in small-town Nebraska legendary among students for his bullying tactics and total lack of sympathy for the awkwardness of youth. The movie begins 13 years ago, with Woodcock badgering a group of early-adolescent boys into learning the rules of basketball, the primary one being, apparently, that strength is the only rule that matters. (“Lose the asthma,” he commands one wheezing boy before sending him off to run laps.) One of his unfortunate charges is John Farley (Scott), who commits the cardinal gym-class sins of being overweight and unable to do a pull-up. Flash forward 13 years, and John is now a famous writer of self-help books about letting go of your past and moving on with your life. Of course John hasn’t let go of anything; behind that gleaming smile and muscular body, he’s still a fat kid in his underpants, hanging for his life from a chin-up bar. Which is made painfully clear when he returns home to Nebraska to find out that his mother (Sarandon) is engaged to Woodcock and that he’s the only one who’s clear-eyed enough to stop the relationship and expose Woodcock for the abusive cuss that he is. Unfortunately, Mr. Woodcock is funny for exactly five minutes, during which time Woodcock is shown throwing basketballs at boys’ heads and mocking them for having dead parents. It’s that kind of subversive, did-he-really-just-say-that humor that helped turn Thornton into the unforgivably awful SOB you can’t help but love and that exposes the rest of Mr. Woodcock – with its focus on Scott’s self-pity and paper-thin frat humor – for the half-hearted retread that it is.