NEW LINE CINEMA
Do you remember the fat kid who grew up to be Seann William Scott? Me neither.
It is from this leap of faith that “Mr. Woodcock” begins, a well-intentioned and reasonably funny movie that opens nationwide tomorrow.
Scott plays John Farley, the fat kid who left his humble Forest Meadow home in Nebraska to write what is possibly the corniest self-help book ever conceived. Now, Farley is returning home to collect the prestigious Corn Cob Key, an award given to the most outstanding Forest Meadow residents.
When Farley returns home, he is greeted warmly by his mother (Susan Sarandon), who then greets her date for the evening, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) - the gym teacher from hell who sent Farley on his quest for self-help 13 years ago.
Most of this film has been done before: Farley returns to his hometown after conquering the problems the hometown villain gave him. Physical and psychological battles ensue between hero and villain. Some are admittedly funny, but most never cross into truly hysterical territory.
The audience is reminded one too many times that, yes, Thornton is indeed that “teacher from hell” archetype. Several subplots are either useless or underused, particularly the one during which Farley encounters love interest Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller). Tracy is astonished by Farley’s transformation and immediately agrees to date him.
Farley and Tracy’s relationship manages to at once raise a host of unanswered questions and still remain completely unnecessary in a love quartet that really needs to be left a love triangle.
What maintains that love triangle essence - a conflicted son versus his mother and his childhood demon - is Sarandon’s character, a wisely used tug-of-war rope who manages to garner love from the entire town but not from Farley and his friends. Mr. Woodcock’s two-faced personality, however, is never used to its full degree. His supposedly nice side exists only in his ability to woo Mrs. Farley and not in his ability to deceive Farley and set him up for another big fall.
Clich?s are funny when done right. “Mr. Woodcock” has a number of great slapstick gags and a well-crafted reminder of what many of us left behind in our middle school gym lockers. But the clich?s are less than mediocre, and the laughs can’t seem to get past the bleachers.