Mr. Woodcock

Published: .
Updated: .

David Swindle
Grade: F

There are two kinds of bad movies.

The first is bad from the get-go. It's somewhere between mediocre and flat-out failure from opening corporate logos to the credits. Most lousy movies fall into this category. And generally you're able to deal with it. You just lower the expectations, maybe get a laugh out of it here or there and appreciate what you can. The last movie I reviewed to fall into this category was the Jet Li/Jason Statham action flick "War."

The other kind of bad movie is much more insidious. For most of the film it's at the very least OK. You're buying into its premise and going with it. You're maybe even enjoying it. And then somewhere down the line it takes a turn. It goes somewhere or does something so stupid, appalling, immoral, or unacceptable that it ruins everything. You've been sitting there the whole movie expecting something, waiting for something, knowing the movie is going to go to a certain place, and then it simply does not happen. In fact something else happens - something unforgivable.

I almost always follow the unspoken, perfectly normal and acceptable film critics' rule of not giving away too much of the plot, certainly never revealing the ending. To ruin a movie for someone is a cruel thing to do. That's why I'm giving plenty of warning right here, right now: "Mr. Woodcock" made me more angry than any film in recent memory and to explain why I'm going to have to give away the ending because it's the ending that completely ruins what had the potential for being a successful, perhaps even great comedy. So I'm warning you right now, if you really want to pay $8.75 to see "Mr. Woodcock" then stop now and go see it. Or, you can trust me, continue reading, and save yourself a horrible experience. You've been warned. Now no whining about it later.

The premise of "Mr. Woodcock" has been pretty well advertised. And as a concept it's a good idea that could have worked pretty well. Mr. Woodcock (Billy-Bob Thornton) is the gym teacher from hell. He's the kind of guy who likely was a bully in school and discovered the perfect job to continue the kind of sadistic behavior he needs to engage in to fill the cruel emptiness within his black, black soul. This is the kind of teacher who any sensible human being would fire, who in real life would be the result of dozens of lawsuits, and really should go to prison for child abuse. He physically and verbally abuses his students relentlessly, pointing out their flaws and weaknesses and mocking them for it. He puts his kids through intense acts of embarrassment.

The film focuses on John Farley, who as a pudgy, un-athletic seventh grader was traumatized by Woodcock. Thirteen years later, though, he's lost his baby fat, has a bestselling self-help book, and is played by Seann William Scott, an actor who made his name playing the cruel, insensitive, alpha-male Stifler in the "American Pie" trilogy. Farley makes a surprise trip home when he is informed that he is to be given the "Corn Key" by his hometown for his book's success. It's then that he makes the discovery that his mother Beverly (excellently played by Susan Sarandon) has been dating Woodcock for five months. The situation then gets beyond bad when Beverly accepts Woodcock's proposal of marriage.

John makes the effort to try and connect with Woodcock and bury the hatchet but it does not really work out that well. All his attempts only result in failure, physical pain and embarrassment. He then abandons all his self help rhetoric and teams up with an old classmate to break up Woodcock and his mom by any means necessary.

Let's stop for a moment here and note a few things. This is a decent premise. As a film, this could really work. You've got five great actors working here. Thornton, Sarandon, and Scott are all wonderful people to watch and each have had their successes. In the supporting roles there's the always delightful Ethan Suplee as John's slacker friend and the very amusing Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live as John's book promoter. This really could work.

One of the reasons we go to films is to experience things that we may never - or rarely - get to experience in real life. The allure of "Mr. Woodcock" is that the experience that it teases is the chance to triumph over a bully. You see the trailer and the advertisements and learn the set up and you see Mr. Woodcock as the ultimate bully. And then you've got a friendly, likable guy who is in this situation where he is going to get his justice over Woodcock. He's going to finally get his vengeance. That's why you go to the film.

Here's where I spoil the ending.

That moment never comes. John never triumphs. Woodcock never gets his just desserts. The only time it comes close is that moment in the trailer where John hits Woodcock with a chair. You're sitting there for the entire movie, going through an hour of John the Nice Guy's continued degradation and embarrassment. And you take it because you know that vengeance will be sweet. Woodcock is going to get it so bad. And it does not happen. At the same ceremony that John is honored with his Corn Key, Mr. Woodcock - a teacher that should be fired, sued, and sent to prison - is honored as Educator of the Year. And at the ceremony, person after person comes up to say how great Woodcock is. So when it finally comes time for John to accept his award all he can do is rant about Woodcock and insult these people who have been honoring him.

Ultimately what the film comes down to saying is absolutely unfathomable, and unacceptable. John ends up giving in to Woodcock and saying "you're a good person." He ends up thanking Woodcock for "pushing him" and helping to make him the person he is today. No, no, no, no, no. Woodcock is not a good person. It's not "tough love." He's not being hard on his students to push them and make them better. He does not even remember his students' names. He is a cruel, sadistic bully who takes pleasure in the suffering of others.

I did not have a teacher like Mr. Woodcock but I have known plenty of bullies in my life - we all have. And yes, you can make the case that as a result of dealing with bullies we have become stronger, better people. But the ends do not justify the means. A bully does not become a good person because your experiencing his sadism made you a stronger person. No one accepts their greatest bully, calls them a good person, and gives them their blessing to have sex every night with their hot Susan Sarandon mom because their bullying somehow made them a better person.

All I can hope at this point is that "Mr. Woodcock" will not be a hit, will not make money, and will not prompt idiots to start quoting it or acting like Mr. Woodcock. The film's financial success and cultural acceptance would be the only thing more disgusting and depressing than the movie itself.