Billy Bob's a bit too familiar as 'Mr. Woodcock,' bully coach

Posted: September 14, 2007

We've seen a spate of movies recently in which older male authority figures torment younger men while imparting some kind of life lesson.

Two have starred Billy Bob Thornton, none has been funny, so with any luck the trend will end with "Mr. Woodcock."

Thornton has the title role as a sadistic, old-school P.E. teacher who despises and punishes weakness - belittling fat kids, stutterers, asthmatics.

One chubby lad is so traumatized by the experience that he spent his young life finding a way to rise above it, which he chronicles in a self-help book called "Letting Go."

When the book becomes a best-seller, the author (Seann William Scott) returns to his Farm Belt hometown to receive the Corn King Award, only to find the still fearsome Woodcock romancing his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon).

The Oedipal angle adds a wrinkle (a role Thornton played as recently as "School for Scoundrels") to the established formula, but it's an angle the movie does little to exploit with any success.

The script is pretty flat and derivative (it repeats ideas from the awful "License to Wed") and offers little to laugh at save a few pratfalls. But we also get less than we might hope from a promising cast. This isn't the best role for Scott (Stiffler in "American Pie"), an antic actor whose elfin brow gives him a natural air of mischief. Here, he's assigned to play an earnest, needy, vulnerable mama's boy, and it's not a role that suits him.

Thornton, on the other hand, could play a flattopped dictator like Woodcock in his sleep, and in this case, he may have.

Sarandon is given virtually nothing to do here, but there is a small, funny role for Amy Poehler as a foul-mouthed, domineering publicist (publicitrix? publitrix?) flogging her client's book. *

Produced by Bob Cooper, David Dobkin, directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Michael Carnes, Josh Gilbert, music by Theodore Shapiro, distributed by New Line Cinema.

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