Mr. Woodcock is the type of teacher horror stories are told about—cruel and sadistic, he revels in the joy of inflicting humiliation upon others. As a physical education teacher at a middle school, he enjoys making fun of his unathletic students, sending anyone who rubs him the wrong way off on a voyage of lap running. John Farley happened to be one of those students.
Thirteen years after the horrors of Woodcock’s class, Farley (Sean William Scott) is a successful author of a best-selling book about how to let go of painful memories. When he learns he is going to receive a prestigious honor from his hometown, he returns to find one small surprise—his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) is now dating his hated gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton). Aghast by this turn of events, he takes it upon himself to break them up before it’s too late, and looks to his childhood friend Nedderman (Ethan Suplee) for assistance. Unfortunately for him, things turn out to be a lot more difficult than he anticipated.
The success or failure of a comedy can oftentimes be attributed to the actors, and this one is no different. Scott does a manageable job at carrying the film, creating a likeable persona and generating a certain amount of sympathy for his character’s situation. However, this is far from his best work here, and he simply doesn’t have many scene-stealing or memorable moments as in past films like “American Pie” or “The Rundown.”
The role of Mr. Woodcock is nothing new for Thornton (he’s recently played strikingly similar characters in “Bad News Bears” and “School For Scoundrels”), and he delivers exactly along those same expected lines. While this works here for the most part, it does start to get old after awhile, with Thornton failing to offer anything new this time around. It would be nice to see Thornton move away from these types of characters and onto something a little more stretching in his choice of upcoming projects. It also doesn’t help when they overplay his cantankerousness to the point of ridiculousness, losing with it any element of credibility the story might have had.
The supporting cast is slightly above average for a film of this nature, yet at the same time doesn’t distinguish itself either. Sarandon does a convincing job as Farley’s mom but doesn’t bring much depth to the part, and we never become entirely convinced she would fall for a guy like Woodcock in the first place. Suplee (“Mallrats,” “My Name Is Earl”), only given a handful of scenes to work with, offers a few chuckles but his comedic talents are largely wasted. Amy Poehler (“Mean Girls,” “Blades Of Glory”), who plays Farley’s book manager, isn’t bad but also isn’t very funny either, and her role doesn’t add much to the overall proceedings.
As far as the comedy aspect goes, there are a few genuinely funny scenes, though most of them were included in the trailer. Much of the humor is of the slapstick variety, which works well between Scott and Thornton but isn’t nearly as funny during the flashback sequences. The dialogue is also only so-so, with nothing sticking out as either glaringly poor or hilariously funny. Director Craig Gillespie has turned in a decent-looking film on his first try, and the only thing that sticks out as noticeably awkward is the score in a couple of scenes.
The movie offers nothing new or groundbreaking but isn’t the train wreck one would have predicted either, instead falling somewhere in the middle. While the laughs are only sporadic, the important thing is there still are some actually present, and the cast, while far from the best they are capable of, prove to be entertaining enough. “Mr. Woodcock” might not be good enough to pay $10 to see in a theater but on a night of particular boredom, it should suffice just fine as a rental.