While Judge Ryan Keefer knows what it feels like to climb up a rope in gym classes, watching this was like the derision of kids after not making it to the top.
Our review of Mr. Woodcock, published January 25th, 2008, is also available.
Everyone takes P.E. Few survive.
For quite some time, Mr. Woodcock was a film without an audience. In fact, I can remember seeing trailers for this thing back in the spring of 2007, yet it kept getting delayed, for whatever reason, until it was finally released in the fall. Like a child, I guess the folks at New Line realized that you could only put so many mashed potatoes on top of your vegetables before you get caught. So now that it's available on DVD, what's the result?
Facts of the Case
Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) directs from a script by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert. I'm not entirely sure what it is that Carnes and Gilbert did to deserve such a cast (as this is their first produced script for film), but there are two Oscar winners here. Seann William Scott (The Dukes of Hazzard) is not one of them. Scott plays John Farley, the author of an immensely successful self-help book, though he was not always so self-assured and headstrong. John was a plump boy in gym class, like a lot of other kids growing up. His gym teacher was Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade), a belligerent and confrontational teacher, not to mention psychologically abusive. But John managed to overcome his past and is on a book tour when he comes home to accept a local award, surprising his mom (Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking). Mom has quite a surprise for John as well. She's seeing someone new, though the person isn't so new to him…it's Woodcock! Motivated to do whatever he can to make Woodcock break up with his mom, John discovers Woodcock won't go down without a fight.
Because the trailer to Mr. Woodcock had been played ad nauseum, there was a natural expectation of things to see. Remarkably, less was delivered. A larger concern is Scott, who can't say no to a bad script.
Scott's performance is, well, Scott-like. In the bonus materials, he says it was fun playing a straight man, yet he's barely funny when he unloads his so-called comic ability. This makes for a weird Catch-22 I have neither the patience nor the inclination to try and explain. Sarandon barely makes an impact and the material wasn't worthy of her abilities. As for Thornton, this is a little more difficult to talk about. His jokes and teasing of John as an adult are not funny and even a little predictable. However, the way he treats kids, in the past or present, is pretty funny. It's kind of a cross between General Patton and Thornton's role in Bad Santa, easily better than his similar role in Bad News Bears. I could and would pay to see him do this type of thing all the time. And you know what? There are some other themes in Mr. Woodcock that, if given the proper attention, probably would have made the film better. It cleverly pokes fun at self-help, especially when the message is delivered by such a flawed individual. However, that irony just isn't given the attention it needs, primarily because Carnes and Gilbert stick to basic and conventional plot devices, such as Melissa Sagemiller, who plays the closest thing to a love interest for John.
Technically the 2.35:1 widescreen presentation was okay, but New Line used the VC-1 codec which, compared to other New Line Blu-ray releases, seems to underachieve. Flesh tones look natural, but there isn't the level of detail that makes you want to stand up and cheer. Seriously, the trailer on HDNet looked better. The DTS HD Master Audio track spans 7.1 channels and is a little superfluous. Subwoofer activity is minimal. Dialogue is fairly clear through most of the film, but isn't really immersive in any way. But hey, the extras all appear to be in high definition, so that's nice, right? Well, there are ten deleted scenes that total about thirteen minutes, and they're not altogether good, save for a joke or two. The 15-minute making of piece is the usual group lovefest about the material and the people they worked with. To give you an idea of how pointless this piece is, they interviewed the technical advisor for the wrestling sequences. Enthralling. The unique contribution is a piece called "P.E. Trauma Tales," where the cast talks about a gym teacher that terrorized them or someone they knew. They then interview a real-life teacher who's worked for almost 40 years, bikes to work every day, and talks about differences between Thornton's character and what occurs now in gyms, though at 12-minutes it's a bit too long. The trailer puts a cap on things.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
From the film to the bonus materials, Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live) is always on, and the few scenes she's in are flat out hilarious. In real life, Poehler is married to Will Arnett, who many know as Gob Bluth from Arrested Development. The best way I can describe her performance is Gob-like and uncensored, with the free reign to do whatever she wanted with that small role.
Mr. Woodcock is a clear example of what happens when a trailer plays the film's best moments. When a film fails to elevate past what's captured in two and a half minutes, it's going to be forgettable. There was some potential for this to be a pretty good movie, but it falls flat. And technically it's nothing worth writing home about either, so I'd put this one firmly in the "wait for cable" camp.
Carnes, Gilbert, and Gillespie are guilty and should go back to the drawing board, while Sarandon and Thornton are co-conspirators who should have known better.
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