Mr. Woodcock: High-Concept Comedy, Starring Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Billy Bob Thornton

An old-fashioned comedy in the vein of “Meet the Parents,” Mr. Woodcock is a high-concept but low-humor, poorly-executed flick that reflects teenagers’ eternal anxieties of going back to their adolescence and take revenge on those who had tortured them, like teachers and coaches.

Starring Seann William Scott as the youth who goes back to his town, Susan Sarandon as his widowed mom, and Billy Bob Thornton as the former coach who’s now dating Sarandon, the feature has been sitting on the shelves for two years waiting for the “right time” to be released. And guess what It’s released Friday, September 14, against Jodie Foster’s action vehicle “The Brave One,” Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” and “In the Valley of Elah,” Paul Haggis’ follow-up to his Oscar winner “Crash,” among others.

Seann William Scott plays John Farley, a man who has not always been the confident, best-selling author of self-help books that he is today. Through flashbacks, we get glimpses of how he was abused at school. Its taken Farley two decades to recover from Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), the ruthless coach from hell who made his high-school years a living nightmare.

For students at Forest Meadow Middle School, the Physical Education class is not playtime, but an exercise in mental and physical humiliation administered by the tough Mr. Woodcock. Managed more like a military boot camp than a school class, Woodcocks gym session recognizes no flaws or weaknesses. The dominant norms are those of torture and embarrassment, accompanied by the dreaded sound of the coach’s whistle.

But Woodcock is engaged to Farley’s mother (Susan Sarandon), and John is determined to prove that his step-father-to-be is an abusive creep and adulterous–before its too late. Unfortunately, Farley’s plans keep backfiring. The more he tries to make Woodcock look bad, the worse he makes himself look, and the more desirable Woodcock appears in his mom’s eyes.

Essentially, “Mr. Woodcock” is a wannabe screwball comedy, a 1960s or 1970s-like feature that draws on mismatched temperaments and personalities of the most obvious kind. The movie is so old-fashioned that by today’s standards of Judd Apathow’s comedies, “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” and “Superbad,” it feels like a work from another era.

For those who care, here is how the slender plot unfolds. When the saga begins, Farley’s life seems like a dream come true. He’s already published one self-help bestseller, and he’s in the middle of a publicity tour for his second book, “Letting Go.” Various people in town quote lines from his book and know exactly in which chapters these lines appear. Farley and all those around him believe that he is on the fast track to the big time, major celebrity status and all the rewards that come with it.

However, a last-minute detour to the Midwest for a quick visit to his mother threatens to derail not only his promising career as a self-help guru, but also every last vestige of his newfound inner peace.

Farley returns home a conquering hero. Admired and famous, hes awarded the highest honor the town can bestowthe Corn Cob Key to the city, which the mayor promises to present to him personally, at the towns annual Cornival festival. Predictably, Farley even rekindles the affair with an old high-school sweetheart.

When Farley discovers that his mother is going to marry Mr. Woodcock, he becomes obsessed with exposing his old teachers true nature. Its clear Mr. Woodcock and his mother are crazy about each other; the way they look at each other, the flowers he brings when he comes for dinner, the hot sex they have (in one scene, when Fraley is hiding under their bed).

Going through the adolescent malaise of arrested development, Farley cant seem to get past memories of his tormented boyhood. Despite protests from his career manager and agent, he decides to delay his book tour, stay in town through the weekend and settle the score!

In what is both childish and largely lame and mirthless, Farley and Mr. Woodcock engage in a Freudian phallic battle over gaining the attention and approval of the mother-woman in between. Who would win At first, Mr. Woodcock turns the tables on Fraley’s each and every attempt to discredit him.

The jealousy-driven contest builds up to a climax of public humiliation. By Sundays Cornival, Farley’s desperate hijinks have lost him a book contract, disappointed his mom, and discredited him in front of the whole village, including his new sweetheart. Even the mayor has taken back the Corn Cob Key!

Rest of the saga deals with one issue. With everything hanging in the balance, would Farley be able to follow his own self-help philosophy and let go Or will he lose everything as he goes head to head with Woodcock in a raucous and hilarious battle of wills

You can’t blame any of the actors for this charmless, inept comedy. Sluggish, “Mr. Woodcock” goes through the motions under the disappointing helm of Craig Gillespie, who works from a screenplay, credited to Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert, though other writers contributed too (earlier studio releases mention Josh Sternin and Jeffrey Eentimilia).

Seann William Scott has done better in “The American Pie” movies, which, by comparison are far superior to “Mr. Woodcock.” With a diverse range as an actor, Billy Bob Thornton (“Love Actually,” “Monster’s Ball”), could have played this role in his sleep. Still beautiful, though beginning to show signs of aging, Susan Sarandon (“Shall We Dance,” “Dead Man Walking”) may be too intelligentand too oldto play Thornton’s object of desire.

There are scenes that are so embarrassing that you feel sorry for the actors who are delivering the silly lines and hope that their paychecks justify their appearances in this picture, so that they can do, as they have already done, better, worthier films in the future).

End Note

The helming is credited to Craig Gillespie, but, according to reports, producer David Dobkin was brought in for significant reshoots, which might explain the series of delays in releasing the picture.

Cast

Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton)
John Farley (Seann William Scott)
Beverly (Susan Sarandon)

Credits

A New Line Cinema release and presentation of a Landscape Entertainment production.
Produced by Bob Cooper, David Dobkin.
Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Kent Alterman, Karen Lunder, Diana Pokorny.
Co-producer, Brian Inerfeld.
Co-executive producers, Michele Weiss, Keith Goldberg.
Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Screenplay, Michael Carnes, Josh Gilbert.
Camera: Tami Reiker.
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Kevin Tent.
Music: Theodore Shapiro.
Production designer: Alison Sadler.
Art director: James F. Truesdale.
Set designers: John Berger, Gregory A. Berry, Anthony D. Parrillo.
Set decorator: Jay R. Hart.
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck.
Sound: Steve Cantamessa.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 86 Minutes

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