|Written by Darren Gross|
|Tuesday, 01 July 2008|
John’s return surprises his widowed mother, Beverly (Susan Sarandon) who sheepishly reveals that she’s been seriously dating for the first time in years, and is currently head-over-heels for the man she feels may be “the one,” gym teacher Jasper Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton). This revelation deeply disturbs John, who has lingering, traumatic memories of the verbal and physical abuse he and scores of kids received under this aggressive, cruel teacher in his terrifying gym class. To make matters worse, Woodcock doesn’t even remember the once (hardly) chubby John and is annoyed at the prospect of having to make nice with him in order to please Beverly.
Although John’s self-help book presents him as an expert on getting past your painful traumatic memories, John himself is unable to put to bed his hatred for Mr. Woodcock and begins a campaign to undermine the relationship he has with Beverly, hoping he can uncover some dirt on Woodcock that would make his mother realize what a creep he is. Unfortunately, everything John does causes him to look petty and selfish in his mother’s eyes, while simultaneously making Woodcock seem patient and forgiving.
This workable setup for a mainstream comedy has nothing beyond its premise going for it. What seems like a simple enough springboard for an effective series of gags becomes dreary, leaden, and dull thanks to muddled, inappropriate direction, wrong-headed performances and gloomy cinematography. The script is woefully unfunny and terribly underdeveloped; the story is far too simplistic, there’s a noticeable lack of supporting characters, and story threads are established that go nowhere. There simply isn’t enough going on and what is isn’t very funny. The same story in the hands of the Farelly brothers would probably have been ten times funnier and still have had the dramatic core that the filmmakers have unwisely emphasized here.
Director Craig Gillespie oft forgets that he’s supposed to be making a comedy and never finds the correct tone for the performances. Billy Bob Thornton plays Woodcock completely straight and with an overbearing stiffness and intensity, while the part begs for a larger, more over-the-top characterization. A fascist gym teacher could be a great springboard for a wild performance, but Thornton takes it so seriously, that Woodcock becomes loathsome, realistic, and depressing which effectively torpedoes the comedy. Cruelty to children is a tough thing to make comedic, but realism certainly does not seem the best way to go. Using Woodcock as the straight character forces Seann William Scott to become the comedic role, but it doesn’t feel appropriate and he acts larger and crazier as the film goes on but there’s a pathetic sadness to him that, again, kills the comedy. Susan Sarandon is fine and plays her role with sincerity, but it’s a film that suffers from an overdose of sincere performances. Amy Poehler gives the film a lift whenever she’s onscreen (usually phoning John from a separate location), in a performance that seems somewhat improvised and is amusingly unpredictable. Ethan Suplee’s earnest moron, Nedderman, tries to bring in some broader comedy, but it’s an obvious character whose storyline goes nowhere.
Adding to the misery is director of photography Tami Reiker’s unnecessarily grim, brooding, cinematography, heavy in shadows, dim, and features sour, yellowish flesh tones that only helps further crush the comedy out of this misfire.
The whole enterprise feels like they filmed a rough draft. It’s clearly intended to be a bit of a vulgar, gross-out comedy, with much made about Woodcock’s sexual prowess (though curiously, nothing humorous is made of his name), but it’s all very tame and basic, with each of the scenes feeling a few drafts away from actually being funny. John being trapped under the bed while his mother and Woodcock have sex can be funny, but you have to make it so. The screenwriters seem to think that setting up a scene is enough, and that the actors will make it funny by mugging or through their physical behavior. I don’t know whether a PG-13 rating is what the filmmakers were shooting for when they filmed “Mr. Woodcock,” but that rating on a comedy with this story is more of a warning to its potential audience, than a recommendation. In addition, the attempt by the filmmakers to have the movie end on some kind of sincere emotional note is completely wrongheaded as it completely disregards everything we’ve learned about Woodcock and tries to condone his mistreatment of children, by saying it was what John and the rest of the kids needed at the end of the day. It’s insulting and appalling to say the least.
The BD presents the film’s Super 35 2.35:1 photography with a crisp image that’s stable and full of fine detail. The overly made-up Thornton frequently looks rubbery and mask-like and it’s even more noticeable in 1080p. Blacks are dark and dense and the sour look of the digital intermediate is accurately conveyed here.
The sound is rich and crisp, presented in a clean uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that makes minimal usage of the surrounds. Dialogue is warm and always intelligible and the mix never overpowers it.
The bonus materials are all presented in HD, which gives the deleted scenes a welcome jump in quality and makes the talking-head interviews featured in the brief “Making of” promo a little more engaging. “P.E. Trauma Tales” is a brief profile of a real, more genial modern gym teacher that is intercut with anecdotes from the cast and crew of their gym horror stories. The trailer (presented in HD) is also included.