By Lady Liberty
School for Scoundrels
* out of ****
It was kind of a rough week in my household (work, work, and more work!), and I was really looking forward to laughing. I thought School for Scoundrels might fill the bill. Silly me.
Roger Waddell (Jon Heder) is sorely in need of a school for something. He's a nice enough guy, but socially awkward and subject to panic attacks around women. His scintillating career as a New York City meter "maid" doesn't help his desirability, either. But when he finds himself rejected yet again, a well-meaning buddy suggests he make a phone call.
Roger only knows that he'd really, really like to go out with his neighbor. Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) lives with her caustic roommate, Becky (Sarah Silverman) in an apartment just down the hall. In the end, it's his desire for Amanda more than any other of his myriad personal issues that convinces him to pick up the phone.
When Roger arrives in class, he meets the mysterious Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his assistant, a real tough guy named Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan). He also finds himself in the midst of a group of other men just like him, men Dr. P says aren't even good enough to call themselves losers (as he succinctly points out, losers are those who've tried and lost; the men in his class haven't even bothered trying).
Though Dr. P's methods are unconventional at best, it seems that Roger might actually be getting his money's worth — and the class isn't cheap! Roger finally gets the nerve to ask Amanda on a date; Becky, meanwhile, is far from convinced that doing anything with Roger is remotely a good idea. Still, it's possible that things might not go all that badly. But then Dr. P himself makes a move, and Roger has to fight back if he intends to have any chance at all at getting the girl of his dreams.
Enlisting the help of some friends (played by Matt Walsh, Todd Louiso, and Horatio Sands) from class, Roger puts plans in motion that will make him or break him, once and for all.
The premise behind School for Scoundrels is okay. We know that Billy Bob Thornton is more than capable of great comedy (Bad Santa, anybody?), and Jon Heder has something of a reputation for the same himself (the critically acclaimed Napoleon Dynamite brought Heder into his own). And yet both are strangely flat here. Michael Clarke Duncan seems bizarrely beneath himself as both Dr. P's underling and something far more nefarious; a cameo by Ben Stiller is overacted, even for him. Meanwhile, Jacinda Barrett is much too perky for her own good — or that of anybody else.
Roger's classmates are as stereotypical as it gets — which might not be so bad if the acting wasn't also so melodramatic (something for which we can probably blame the director). In fact, the only person that comes off at all well here is the erstwhile Sarah Silverman. More Becky and less everybody else, please!
I frankly blame the director and writers for this mess. Todd Phillips, who co-wrote and directed School for Scoundrels, has the well received (well, among certain audiences, anyway) Old School on his résumé; co-writer Scott Armstrong was also involved with Old School. But the vast majority of what they've written here isn't slapstick enough to be silly, and it's far from clever enough to be amusing; the direction, while competent, can't compensate for that.
The trailers and other advertising for School for Scoundrels made it sound like it had potential. It did. But it didn't even begin to live up to any of it.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: School for Scoundrels is rated PG-13 for "language, crude and sexual content, and some violence." It seems to me the rating is just about right. The crudity is there, but not overly so; the sexual content is school-boyish enough that most tweens and teens are beyond it already. The only real problem with School for Scoundrels is that it's supposed to be a comedy, and it's not funny. If you don't believe me, just ask anybody else in the well-attended showing I saw. They weren't laughing either.
** 1/2 out of ****
Early reviews for The Guardian were mixed. I read that the movie was well done and believable; I read that the movie was formulaic. I read that the story was exciting and moving; I read that it was "just another movie about heroes." I decided to see it for myself. And you know what? Movies are formulaic because certain formulas happen to work. And when movies are about real heroes, the word "just" shouldn't be included before the word "heroes."
US Coast Guard Senior Chief Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is one of the best of the best. Despite the fact he's past the usual age when rescue swimmers are relegated to desk duties, he's still an active swimmer on missions out of the Kodiak, Alaska station. But at the same time his beautiful wife Helen (Sela Ward) decides she can't handle the dangers and dedication required by his job, yet another rescue mission goes all wrong. Randall is wounded both physically and emotionally by his job and the woman he loves, and his commanding officer sees it.
Captain William Hadley (Clancy Brown) knows Randall is good, but he also knows he needs some time to recover. Much against his will, Randall is transferred to the US Coast Guard's school for rescue swimmers. As an active swimmer with a good deal of experience, Randall's methods go against the grain of some of the teachers, including Jack Skinner (Neal McDonough) whose resentment is made clear. But perhaps those who hate Randall the most are his new students.
Among the newly arrived class is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher). Cocky from the first — he promises he'll break all of Randall's school records — he quickly learns that rescue swimming school isn't all that easy. But then, neither is life. He's forced to accept that, too, as he tries to pass the toughest tests he's ever been given. And along the way, he ends up teaching a little something to his instructor.
Kevin Costner has finally returned to a role suitable to his talents and, not least of all, his age. He's grizzled enough to make us believe he's been through it all and then some; but he's still in good enough shape to make us believe he can probably do it one more time. Ashton Kutcher is also well cast. His own innate sureness lends real credibility to the vulnerable cockiness of young Jake, and his lighthearted affair with a local teacher (Melissa Sagemiller) is realistic if a little too cute.
Clancy Brown, Neal McDonough, and John Heard (who plays Captain Frank Larson, Commanding Officer at the school) are all good. Better still is the cast of students who seem cocky, vulnerable, tough, innocent, frustrated, hopeless, hopeful — and determined as all get-out (the fact that some real Coast Guard folks are involved as extras — and more in at least one instance) is also nice.
The special effects (much was actually done in a gigantic wave pool in a studio lot) are superlative. I believed each and every rescue was real and conducted mid-ocean. The training scenes were also quite believable. The direction was competent; the editing better still. Some of the cinematography was likely quite tricky. That I couldn't tell where "tricky" merged with effects tells you a bit about how good both were.
I'm not trying to pretend that The Guardian isn't formulaic as charged, because it is. Although it's not entirely predictable, it certainly bears some resemblance to more than a few general plotlines from the past. And there's little question that the filmmakers set out to present members of the US Coast Guard — particularly rescue swimmers — as heroic. My response to that is: So?
The fact is that the US Coast Guard has some heroes of its own, just as do other services. If we can have Top Gun and Saving Private Ryan, why not The Guardian? Can we ever really see too many real life heroes to serve as inspiration? Isn't it appropriate to offer them some sort of homage?
The Guardian is ordinary enough that it doesn't set itself apart as a film. But its heroes are extraordinary enough that it seems to me the movie was worth making, and the movie itself well made enough to it does the honor it apparently intended to do to its subjects. I enjoyed The Guardian and left the theatre with a new respect for some — up until now, anyway — unsung members of the military. Nothing wrong with that, is there?
POLITICAL NOTES: It's easy with a military film to take political positions. Kudos go to The Guardian for doing none of that. In fairness, of course, the US Coast Guard is a domestic service. It never-the-less seemed that the movie held its focus well, and that makes it easier for Americans of all political viewpoints to hold their focus as well.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Guardian is rated PG-13. There's little graphic language and some implied sex, but no nudity. I'd be more concerned with the suspense involved in several of the very realistic rescues. I don't believe that those scenes are suitable for little ones, especially those just old enough to understand the very real threat to those in peril. Otherwise, I'd recommend this movie to audiences of all stripes. There are too few movies that show the good guys who, despite having flaws, are as brave and as decent as we'd like to think they are. This is one of them.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.