Drop out of this P.E. class

Mr. Woodcock

on September 14, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
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As thoughts turn back to school, New Line has dusted off this nostalgic ode to the familiar archetype of the middle-school P.E. instructors. Unfortunately, like too many other unsuccessful comedies, the PG-13 laffer sacrifices edge for a potentially broader audience.

While on tour with his bestselling self-help book Letting Go: Getting Past Your Past , Midwest native John Farley (Seann William Scott) learns that his hometown has invited him to receive the prestigious Corn Cob Key to the city at the annual Cornival Festival. Genuinely honored by the gesture, and delighted by the opportunity to pay his mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon) a surprise visit, he returns to Nebraska to find that his mom has a new beau. But she couldn't have made a worse choice for his new potential stepdad: Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), the gym teacher whose torture of Farley and his friends haunts them to this day.

Determined to break the couple up, Farley tries a number of different strategies, first by exploiting his and Beverly's special bond, then by setting out to prove that Mr. Woodock is cheating on her, then by claiming, “He touched me.” Before its effect even has time to set in, this last joke is dismissed, resulting in a sense of missed opportunity that's characteristic of the whole plot. Like the stages of grief, Farley's reactions to the news run the gamut, but they manifest all at once rather than any kind of causal order, depriving the plot of comfortably rising action and ultimately confusing the audience.

Likewise, one is never quite sure how to feel about Mr. Woodcock. It turns out his own father is the worst kind of bastard. He volunteers to teach exercise at the local retirement home where, although he's as tough on the elderly as he is on the young, he also doesn't pity them. “They're just old, Farley,” he says “They're not pathetic.” And, during a ceremony in which he's honored as Educator of the Year, it's revealed that his iron fist has actually had a positive, if comically portrayed, effect on members of the community who aren't Farley.

One gets the sense the filmmakers feared getting sappy—and indeed the audience would have revolted against a complete character rehabilitation—but the result is confusion as to what to make of Mr. Woodcock in the end. In the film's attempt to straddle feel-good and feel-bad, ultimately one feels nothing. Distributor: New Line
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Ethan Suplee and Melissa Sagemiller
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriters: Michael Carnes & Josh Gilbert
Producers: Bob Cooper and David Dobkin
Genre: Comedy
Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: September 14, 2007
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