Knowing absolutely nothing about 'School for Scoundrels' going into this review, I only had the HD DVD box art to go by. And since I can't help but be taken in by movie advertising (even when I know it's usually just hyperbole) I was immediately heartened when I read the words "From the director of 'Old School!'" splashed across the front cover. I have to admit to having also been titillated by the label on the box that shouted "Unrated Ballbuster Edition!." That meant there had to be lots of naughty bits way too hot for theaters, right? Finally, there was a glowing quote from Rolling Stone magazine saying that 'Scoundrels' is "Bad Santa' meets 'Napoleon Dynamite!'" How could this not be a good one!?
Of course, the first rule of movie marketing is that it's not about selling what's actually inside the box, but what we want to be inside the box. 'School for Scoundrels' is a perfect case in point -- while it's advertised as another ribald, racy comedy from director Todd Phillips ('Old School,' 'Road Trip') starring "zany" comedy superstars Billy Bob Thorton and Jon Heder, the movie itself is actually rather tame. In fact, warching the film, I got the distinct impression that Phillips (who has developed a reputation for making movies for frat boys) came to this film wating to achieve something more romantic and mature. Yet the Weinstein Co., seemingly desperate for a big comedy hit to help launch their studio, marketed the movie to capitalize on Phillips' track record, regardless of whether the audience would be disappointed once they actually got into the theater.
The result is a movie that, aside from a few doses of low-brow humor, is really just chick flick-lite. Heder stars as Roger Weddell, one of the actor's typical nerdy characters (see 'Napoleon Dynamite,' 'The Benchwarmers') -- he's a sweet guy, and he has ambitions, but he just doesn't have the confidence to pursue his dreams. So, following the advice of a friend, he decides to take an assertiveness training course under the tutelage of one Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). To say Dr. P has a rather unorthodox teaching style would be an understatement -- this guy thrives on berating and humiliating his students, taking the "tough love" approach to whole new levels.
Yet Roger excels in the course, to the point where he's at last ready to conquer his greatest fear -- asking his beautiful neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) out on a date. But what Roger doesn't know is that Amanda has just begun seeing Dr. P himself -- and when both men figure out what the other is up to, it's war. Dr. P suddenly goes from confidence-builder to soul-destroyer. Roger, however, has learned enough from his teacher that he's about to turn the tables. It all devolves into a series of madcap and increasingly crafty pranks, double-crosses and betrayals. Even if Roger "wins," will the ends ultimately justify the means?
The premise of 'School for Scoundrels' is hardly new, but it could have been a fun movie if Phillips and screenwriter Scot Armstrong (with whom he'd previously collaborated on 'Old School' and 'Road Trip') had really gone for broke. But what is so surprisingis not that Phillips ratchets up the sentiment -- it's always nice to see a young director find a bit of heart -- but that he so tones down the craziness. This is the kind of film that demands that its characters go completely over-the-top, so that their actions reach a level of surrealism that makes the mean-spiritedness palatable. Instead, Phillips and Armstrong just kind of grind it all together without hitting any peaks or valleys. The result is comedic oatmeal -- Roger and Dr. P are so mushy and syrupy over Amanda that they never do anything particularly nasty or hilarious to each other. Are thrown punches and paintballs to the groin really the best the filmmakers would come up with? They say love is war, but you sure wouldn't know it from this movie.
Not helping matters is teh fact that neither Thorton nor Heder seem to be on the same page. It often feels as if Phillips simply let them both loose, hoping they would come up with some great improv. But Thorton is almost too stoic. As he proved in 'Bad Santa,' he certainly knows how to play a great, potty-mouthed curmudgeon. But little of that sparkle comes through here. And Heder, for my money, has never been able to approach the zest he brought to 'Napoleon Dynamite.' Here he just seems to be acting too hard, with a permanent, befuddled expression that suggests that he's desperately trying to remember his next line of dialogue. In short, he and Thorton just never make magic together.
Ultimately, 'School for Scoundrels' is not really a bad film. It is certainly sweet, and I suspect that 13-year-old boys will love all the tame gags. The supporting cast also delivers some inspired moments, including Michael Clarke Duncan as Dr. P's tactical assistant, Sarah Silverman at her sarcastic best as Roger's friend Becky, and in an unbilled cameo, Ben Stiller. It's just too bad Phillips and Armstrong didn't go for the jugular on this one. For a comedy to be truly inspired it has to take risks. 'School for Scoundrels' just plays it safe.
'School for Scoundrels' is one of those tough transfers to judge, because the film's visual design is so ordinary that it has virtually no unique characteristics. This is simply a perfectly competent, well-shot film, and it's presented nicely on this HD DVD.
The Weinstein Co. offers a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer encoded in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. The source is pristine, with deep blacks and sharp contrast across the entire grayscale. Whites don't bloom, and the film always looks detailed. Even long shots, such as the many "fly-over" shots looking down upon urban cityscapes, reveal fine texture all the way to street level. Close-ups are even better, with a very nice sense of depth. Colors are well saturated, and are neither too dull nor too strong. Fleshtones remain accurate and natural.
Having said all that, the film has a weirdly cold, sterile look, that's not altogether aesthetically pleasing. It's no fault of the transfer, but the film is just never really eye-popping -- it's certainly not the kind of image where you're going to whip it out as demo material on the level of a 'Batman Begins' or 'Poseidon.'
But the film's biggest problem (and this is a fault of the transfer) is surprising amount of visible edge enhancement. It's hardly the worst I've seen, but there are some halos noticeable, and some shimmering at times. The result is the image that can look unstable, as if it's wavering. Nothing fatal, but the effect is distracting enough to knock the video rating down a notch.
The Weinstein Co. has included yet another "hidden" Dolby TrueHD track on 'School for Scoundrels,' meaning that strangely they haven't advertised it on the back of the box. Unfortunately, the film's flat sound design doesn't provide much to work with anyway, so despite the boost from the high-resolution audio format, this one is hardly involving.
'School for Scoundrels' is a perfectly nice mix, however. The score and pop song-heavy soundtrack are pleasing, with a nice warm quality and very spacious mid-range. Low bass isn't particularly forceful, but it's more than adequate for the material. Surrounds are bland, if active at all -- all you're going to get is some score bleed and minor echo on key effects. Envelopment and pans between channels are also quite rare. At least dialogue comes through clearly, and there are no volume balance problems. Otherwise, there really is nothing else to say about this soundtrack.
'School for Scoundrels' hits HD DVD a couple of months after the standard-def release, and carries over the same supplemental package. It's nothing fantastic, with only a few genuine yucks to be found.
"The Making-Of You Didn't See on TV" mirrors the marketing campaign for 'School for Scoundrels' -- namely, it promises more than it delivers. Agai I expected lots of naughty bits, off-color humor and shocking language, and instead got just another dull promo featurette. Running 19 minutes, it's the usual amalgam of cheesy narration, on-set cast chats and plot recap. None of the funny folks interviewed say anything of substance, instead they just mug for the camera or mock-insult their fellow castmates and director Todd Phillips. There is a bit of making-of footage, but that doesn't mean much with a comedy. Turns out there's a reason you didn't see this on TV -- it kinda sucks.
Next is a single deleted scene -- the film's 4-minute Alternate Ending. But it's just a more gushy, toned-down version of the current ending. Surprisingly sentimental, who knew that the director of 'Old School' really wanted to make chick flicks? There is also a 2-minute Gag Reel, but again, it's mostly missed lines and PG-rated quips.
The best extra is undoubtedly the screen-specific audio commentary with Phillips and screenwriter Scot Armstrong. The biggest asset of this track is that the pair have worked together three times prior, on all of Phillips' previous efforts, including 'Road Trip,' 'Old School' and 'Starsky & Hutch.' As a result, this is a very casual, light-hearted chat, and mostly a cheerleading session for the actors, particularly Thornton. I did keep hoping that Phillips would talk more about how 'Scoundrels' is really a bit of a departure for the director, at least in terms of substituting sentiment for raunch, but no luck. Enjoyable enough none the less -- just don't expect much depth, just a breezy 107 minutes.
Rounding out the extras is the film's Theatrical Trailer. Like all of the video-based supplements listed above, it is formatted in a 16:9 aspect ratio but encoded in 480p/MPEG-2 video only.
The marketing for 'School for Scoundrels' promised plenty of raunchy, R-rated humor, but the movie ultimately delivers a syrupy, sentimental PG-13 romantic comedy. Fans of director Todd Phillips' previous hits 'Old School' and 'Road Trip' will invariably be disappointed. On the bright side, this is a fine HD DVD effort from the Weinsteins, with a nice transfer, soundtrack and supplemental package. But given the lameness of the movie itself, it's probably still best left as a rental.