Middling 'Mr. Woodcock'

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mild pleasures are available in "Mr. Woodcock," a comedy that stops well short of distinction but -- primarily because of the comic animosity between a stoic Billy Bob Thornton and a semi-hysterical Seann William Scott -- delivers some chuckles. The setup seems taken from the young Philip Roth's notes-to-self on novels he never got around to writing. A self-help author (Scott), on book tour, is horrified to find out that his beloved mom (Susan Sarandon) back in Nebraska has taken up with the legendary Mr. Woodcock (Thornton) and so rushes home.

Every school had a Mr. Woodcock: He was the lockjawed, flat-gutted, fearless, tough-as-horseshoes P.E. teacher who missed the Marine Corps and treated his feeble charges with a drill instructor's contempt. A good part of the laughter comes from watching Mr. Woodcock blissfully ignore all the shibboleths of modern "sensitive" high school education and subject his unformed amoebas to humiliation, pain and contempt. The problem: Mr. Woodcock, 13 years earlier, subjected Scott's character to the same routines, shattering him and causing him to veer off into psychobabble as a career. Now, he has to "save" his mom from the man who used him to demonstrate wrestling takedowns. Scott has a nice sense of comic despair, and the serene Sarandon acts blissfully unaware as an Oedipal tug of war to the death breaks out around her.

Director Craig Gillespie clearly knows a few things; most important: If you have only 95 minutes of material, make an only 95-minute movie. Amazing how often that's forgotten.

-- Stephen Hunter

Mr. Woodcock PG-13, 95 minutes Contains crude and sexual content, adult themes, mild profanity and a mild drug reference. Area theaters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company