Despite the ancient and apparently deathless cinema tradition of sequels and remakes, it seems apparent that some works, like some wines, simply don't travel well. The new version of the 1960 English pictureSchool for Scoundrels suggests some of the reasons for a problem that involves translation as much as transplantation --- the differences in both language and context combine to defeat the film's writers and director.
School for Scoundrels emanates from a richly and peculiarly English background that hardly exists in America. Based on one of Stephen Potter's several satirical manuals of instruction in those skills he called Lifemanship, Gamesmanship, and One-upmanship, the original movie showed a cast of gifted comic actors learning how to defeat any rivals in all the large and small encounters of daily social interaction. Or as Potter put it, "how to win without actually cheating." Much of its humor depended upon assumptions of behavior and education that simply don't exist in the United States, usually concluding in the kind of put-down associated with traditional distinctions of class.
Equally important, the movie was produced by the Ealing Studios, one of the bright spots in the generally drab history of British cinema, where a number of talented actors, writers, and directors made some of the best comedies of the postwar period. These included minor masterpieces as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Titfield Thunderbolt. The troupe of regulars included Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim (all of whom appeared in the original) and the incomparable Alec Guinness.
All that history suggests the challenges that the writer-director, Todd Phillips, faced and flunked. His simpleminded exercise in fatuity and nastiness adopts the premise of its predecessor, showing a shy, self effacing young bumbler named Roger (Jon Heder) who enrolls in a sort of night school for failures run by a snarling martinet who calls himself Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton). Dr. P insults, intimidates, and bullies a classroom full of losers desperate to acquire competence in their daily life and confidence in themselves, and maybe even some success in their sex lives.
Although the film nicely establishes its initial situation with a pan of Roger's apartment, stacked with self-help books and the sorts of videos advertised on those dreadful infomercials, it rapidly turns into an exercise in adolescent humor and mature misanthropy. After informing his students of their uselessness and running them through a series of humiliations, Dr. P teaches them to lie, deceive, and practice random violence. Aside from the occasional comic moment, his method depends upon hostility and cynicism, a perception of the weakness and worthlessness of most of humanity. Not a terribly compelling source of comedy.
As one might expect, after a number of nasty, brutal, and occasionally funny incidents, the shy, ineffectual Roger learns his lessons well and begins to succeed with Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), the entirely vapid young woman he desires. At that point Dr. P attempts to steal Amanda away from him, which turns the student-teacher relationship into a contest between rivals, in which Dr. P's superior talent enables him to prevail. The several dirty tricks they play on each other turn increasingly nasty and hurtful, finally obliterating just about any trace of wit or humor.
Eventually Roger's essential goodness and innocence triumph, as we know they will, over his bad education and his worse mentor, satisfying the requirements of comedy established eons ago. By that time, however, the flimsy plot grinds itself down into a groaning halt like some rusty, overworked machine, exhausting all the comic potential and leaving the actors with barely anything of substance to do or say.
Although he once again demonstrates a solid talent for the vile and the rotten, even Billy Bob Thornton cannot save the movie from its uncompromising descent into abject failure. Jon Heder, whoever he is, and Jacinda Barrett together constitute one of the most insipid, unattractive, and unconvincing pairs of young lovers in recent screen history. The only bright spot in School for Scoundrels is the comedian Sarah Silverman as Barrett's roommate --- with her capacity for offhand insult and cool hostility, she should be the dean of Dr. P's school.
School for Scoundrels (PG-13), directed by Todd Phillips, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, Eastview 13.