Mr. Woodcock. Funny, right? Mr. Woodcock, Mr. Woodcock, Mr. Woodcock. Gets funnier every time, doesn't it? Had the filmmakers added a first name, like Richard or Harry, it might have been even more hilarious, but Mr. Woodcock doesn't overexert itself. Director Craig Gillespie and his writers, Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert, consistently choose the path of least resistance, rarely going for an unexpected gag when the obvious one will do. The basic premise—about a guy who discovers that his single mother is dating his hated gym teacher—was already handled with humor and sensitivity in a memorable B-story in a Freaks And Geeks episode. The little touches that made that show special, like a painful dinner conversation where the coach declares Rocky II to be the greatest movie of all time and dismisses Bill Murray as a "wise-ass," feel drawn from particular memories, or at least a rich imagination. Mr. Woodcock just cobbles together whatever shopworn comic ideas spring to mind.
Miscast as a once-plump middle-school outcast who grew into a bestselling self-help author, Seann William Scott courts the audience's affections like a pleading lapdog, but as an actor, he's never suggested a man who once lacked confidence. In the middle of a nationwide book tour to promote a Dr. Phil-like tome about putting the past behind you, Scott gets word that his Nebraska hometown wants to honor him with the prestigious Corncob Key. Soon after flying back, he discovers that his widowed mother Susan Sarandon is dating his former gym coach Billy Bob Thornton, whose militaristic abuses are at the root of Scott's shaky self-esteem. Before long, Scott loses his composure and reverts to his quivering former self.
The few laughs in Mr. Woodcock are relegated mostly to flashbacks of Thornton's drill-sergeant antics, like forcing an asthmatic kid to push through a wheezing fit by running laps, or performing random cup-checks by thwacking students between the legs with a whiffleball bat. (Comedy has few surefire formulas, but kids getting hit in the groin = funny.) But those modest chuckles evaporate in the present-day scenes, partly because the tension between Scott and Thornton isn't tied all that closely to Thornton's profession. A sadistic gym coach is potentially funny; the bully who's dating mom isn't. Thornton is one of America's finest actors, but after this, Bad News Bears, and School For Scoundrels, his run of loveably irascible authority-figure roles should probably come to a close. He's kicked around one child too many.