In 1930, the biggest Hollywood star around was 62-year-old Marie Dressler, a sack-faced ex-vaudevillian who tapped into the Depression Era zeitgeist by playing a series of beaten-down victims. Three years later, the national mood was on the rise, so out went the gloom and in came Shirley Temple. Films and their actors serve as time capsules of a country’s emotional subconscious. So what fun 2030’s theorists will have deconstructing Jon Heder, the gangly Mormon breakout star of Napoleon Dynamite, who’s bought nice cars off of his knack for playing simmering wimps. Heder is the platypus of the silver screen; his specialty—tromping about flat-footed, ass-out, looking like a Lemonhead.
In School for Scoundrels, Heder is the same schmuck as always—the role’s distinguishing traits are that his name is Roger and he lives in New York, where he works as a meter maid. “It’s a living,” he croaks, but it’s not much of one seeing, as he’s easily browbeaten by thugs into paying for their parking tickets and even ponying up extra for their emotional distress. On top of these indignities are Roger’s regulation unflattering shorts and the humiliation of being rejected as a volunteer Big Brother. But Roger lacks both Napoleon’s latent hostility and unconventionality; I’d say he’s flaccid to the bone, but that would imply a spine. Enter Dr. Phil.
Holding court in the Learning Annex, Billy Bob Thornton’s sex guru is a macho, ultra-cool panther of the panties with roots in real-life seduction specialist David DeAngelo (Double Your Dating, Power Sexuality, On Being a Man), trimmed by few style ideas from The Game’s Neil Strauss. To teach Roger and his fellow geeks masculinity, he forces them to pick fights with strangers. To teach guts, he shoots them with paintballs. To teach dating tricks, he pairs them up with beefmeister Michael Clarke Duncan dragged up in lipstick and a wig; if the saps screw up and compliment the lass (bad because it reduces personal power), they’ll get thrown to the floor. The classroom pecking order is clear: Thornton is King Sociopath, Duncan his enforcer, and the serfs are the students (including Horatio Sanz, the adorably waify Todd Louiso, David Cross and weasel-faced Ben Stiller as graduates). Yet, when Roger shoots ahead of the pack thanks to his babe-alicious bleeding heart neighbor (Real World London’s Jacinda Barrett), the three team up to beat him back into place, causing some truly blackhearted hijinks.
Dudes won’t learn much from Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong’s likeable comedy besides lie, act smooth, and wear shades. To advance beyond, Mr. Lonely Hearts will have to hand their life savings over to the seduction svengalis who make thousands just for wingmanning guys at the Saddle Ranch. Too soon, the slapstick succumbs to random acts of sweetness, tempered by pepper spray, whacks to the nuts, and Sarah Silverman. And through them all suffers Jon Heder, who along with Zach Braff has been deemed our generation’s mascot. Can we vote on this? This decade looks bad enough already.