“Mr. Woodcock”, starting with the title, constitutes a bad joke. And even worse an ineffective one.
The drill-sergeant P.E. teacher (Billy Bob Thornton), after which the film is named, feeds on the sadistic mockery of his early pubescent male students. Obesity, lack of athleticism, and even asthma are prime targets.
His lesson plan, a perverse approach to building character, would unlikely find accreditation even in a third world prison.
John Farley (Seann William Scott), during his overweight youth, frequently fell victim to Woodcock’s abuse. Now he bathes in the national limelight as a best-selling self-help author.
When he returns to the backwater community to receive the town’s prestigious Corn Cob Key award he finds his widowed mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon), dating his former nemesis.
“Mr. Woodcock” amazingly resurrects two stereotypes, the men-out-of-boys creator and the smooth talking self-help guru–both dinosaurs long ago flushed from contemporary culture with the pain and subsequent relief of over-large kidney stones.
It’s as though somebody conveniently forgot to release the movie about fifteen years ago. Perhaps they just lacked the courage.
Farley as a former inmate of the infamous gym class, finds Woodcock the same-old bargain basement Bobby Knight he remembered. Unchanged, the bully appears at home in the small Midwest town–a place locked in time, where the men are men, and the women appreciative.
In contrast the once insecure fat boy returns as a self-indulgent celebrity. Blind to all but his own opinion, he stands determined to undermine his mother’s affair. He enlists the help of his old high school buddy, Jay Nedderman (Ethan Suplee) and the two set out to dig up dirt on Woodcock.
The two find additional inspiration in what they consider a total farce: Woodcock’s upcoming award for Instructor of the Year. Jay however lags in passion.
In response to Farley’s growing anger, his friend constantly quotes to the author from his book, “Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past”, which discourages the very behavior in which they’re engaged.
In the meantime Mom attempts to broker a peace between the two men for whom she cares most.
Woodcock, picking up from where he left off when Farley was a student, confronts the young man’s masculinity at every opportunity. Furthering these taunts, he reminds him, rudely and graphically, of something the writer has overlooked: that the gym instructor’s considerable athleticism and virility, brings significant pleasure to Mom.
So obsessed is Farley with this confrontation he passes on a possible invitation to appear on Oprah; a once in a lifetime opportunity to further secure his financial and professional future becomes superceded by his drive to oust Woodcock from his mother’s life.
This tedious conflict has all the suspense of the Midwest landscape in which it is set, offering few, if any, surprises. Scanning over these corn and wheat covered horizons, there’sscarcely a sympathetic character or a witty moment to be found.
It’s curious to find Thornton in this movie, revisiting the similar out-of-date theme from last year’s mediocre “School for Scoundrels” in which he appeared. In “Woodcock” his character never much exceeds the humor punned by his name.
Warning: “Woodcock” may lead to sexual dysfunction. The sparse humor may bring on unwarranted fears of “not getting it” and overall dourness. If “Woodcock” symptoms last for more than four hours, please consult the local entertainment pages for another comedy.