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click to enlarge Two film careers on their way to fossil status.
  • Two film careers on their way to fossil status.

School for Scoundrels (PG-13)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16
Man, that Jon Heder has range.

We first saw him in 2004 as the title character in Napoleon Dynamite, the lovable loser who danced his best friend Pedro into the student council presidency and himself into the hearts of every American under the age of 25. That pot of gold scored him a supporting role in 2005's Just Like Heaven, a Reese Witherspoon-driven romantic comedy that had him playing a lovable loser friend of the male lead. And earlier this year, Heder joined forces with a troika of "Saturday Night Live" vets in The Benchwarmers as ... well, is anyone noticing a trend?

This Friday, he's back in action as (drum roll?) a lovable loser in School for Scoundrels. The twist: Now he's looking for love, with surprise! no luck. And his character Roger, of course, is too hapless to secure it on his own. He's a meter maid with a knack for faint-inducing panic attacks. It's not exactly a rsum to make most women swoon.

With low self-esteem and a silent crush on his Australian neighbor (Jacinda Barrett), Roger heeds the advice of a friend once stuck in a similar rut and signs up for a class aimed at improving all aspects of his dreadful life.

Enter Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), a guru with a reputation for whipping saps like Roger into shape. The lesson is simple enough: If you want to be the king of the jungle, you'd better start acting like a lion. Oddly enough, it begins to work until Dr. P's alpha-male mentality kicks in and Roger's chances of progressing past crush phase are put into jeopardy. Cue hilarious competition between the lovable loser and the overbearing jerk.

Aside from a few yukks here and there, the film is flat. And worse, it's predictable, with gags you'll see coming a mile away. (Nut shots, anyone?) The geniuses behind the film's promotion ruined a potentially funny cameo appearance from Ben Stiller by showing it to us in the trailer where, actually, he may have gotten more screen time. You'll find yourself rooting for a twist at the end, hoping the movie will save itself from, well, itself. And guess what? It comes!

Too bad you knew it would.

Though there's plenty of comedic talent in the cast (David Cross of "Arrested Development" and Jesus is Magic's Sarah Silverman), it's under-used. Director-screenwriter Todd Phillips is better than this; he's been behind the camera on a slew of successful comedies (Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Road Trip) but it looks like he penned this script knowing it'd just be filler until he can get the Godfather and Frank the Tank back together for a sequel. Thornton's right there alongside Phillips, acting too cool for the script from the second he enters. Yeah, Dr. P's supposed to be a guns-blazing a-hole, but he's supposed to care (even for the wrong reasons). Thornton clearly doesn't.

So we're left with Mr. Lovable Loser himself, who's in over his head with the lead role in a studio comedy. He's giving it his all, white-knuckled and trying to hold onto his Napoleon Dynamite gravy train, but it's the same guy all over again minus the glasses, hair, clothes, catchphrases and stupid-but-smart script.

It sounds like the 15-minute ballad might be coming to its end. Someone get that kid off the stage.

Pete Freedman

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