More often than not, films feature idealistic characters striving against adversity to make the world a better place. While these films can be entertaining, it's often more fun to witness idealistic characters completely screw everything up.
In Mr. Woodcock, we meet John Farley (played by Seann William Scott). After being tormented by his gym teacher Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) throughout high school, Farley pulls himself together and becomes a best-selling self-help author. John returns home to small-town Nebraska to receive his town's highest honour at the town carnival, only to discover that his beloved mother (Susan Sarandon) is romantically involved with his old nemesis. When his pleas to his mother not to continue the relationship fall on deaf ears-she becomes engaged to the gym teacher bully-John takes matters into his own hands.
Many of the events in Mr. Woodcock recall the great Alexander Payne film Election, in which a high school teacher feuds with an ambitious, manipulative student. A distinct difference arises between Election and Mr. Woodcock: Election features a likeable regular guy fighting against the underhanded tactics of someone more talented than him. In Mr. Woodcock, a successful writer tries to sabotage his mother's relationship with his high school gym teacher, a regular guy (albeit a bit of a jerk). No real reason is given for why John can't stand to see his mother happy, besides his dislike for Woodcock. In fact, several theories are brought up by characters throughout the film and quickly dismissed. When the inevitable conclusion to the film ends things in a trite and predictable way, audience members may be wondering why the hell it took so long to get there.
Despite its flaws, though, Mr. Woodcock is a pretty funny movie. Filmed by commercial veteran Craig Gillespie-who directs Ryan Gosling in the upcoming Lars and the Real Girl-from a script by first-timers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert, the film is marred by the half-developed plot but blessed with some tremendously witty dialogue. The problem is that the expected "knee-slapper" comedic knockout moments never arrive, or fall flat when they do, leaving the proceedings without any kind of momentum. It doesn't help that John quickly becomes a horribly unsympathetic protagonist. The film's fun when horrible things are happening to him, but audiences may find themselves rooting for Woodcock in scenes pitting teacher against student.
Billy Bob Thornton plays another in a line of coaches and high school teachers, anchoring the film with a fine, unspectacular performance. Seann William Scott, best known for his flamboyant comedic roles in the American Pie films, is dull until he loses his mind halfway through the film and suddenly becomes entertaining. Susan Sarandon doesn't have much to do, save for making out with Thornton and making Scott feel guilty. Meanwhile, Ethan Suplee and Amy Poehler provide some zany comedic relief.
Election worked because it played things dark. When Matthew Broderick's character failed, he failed big-time, and it was entertaining because everything flowed in a very organic way that reminded the audience of one fact: if he hadn't done anything, his life would have been fine. Mr. Woodcock doesn't work because it doesn't play things nearly dark enough. Despite a concept full of potential and a cast full of talent-including Bad Santa himself, Thornton, a veteran of dark comedy-Woodcock lacks bite and is quickly revealed to be quite a flaccid affair.