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‘Woodcock’ goes limp

CAN'T BE SAVED: Despite solid performances by Thornton and Sarandon, 'Mr. Woodcock' flops.
  • CAN'T BE SAVED: Despite solid performances by Thornton and Sarandon, 'Mr. Woodcock' flops.

As I can tell you from my own regrettable experience, nobody can torment a fat kid like a middle school gym teacher. It's a slow, roasting-on-a-spit brand of torment — equal parts humiliation in front of your peers, constant, soul-crushing reminders of your failure and pecked-to-death-by-chickens criticism.

Maybe it's my own screwed up psyche calling out for healing, but I found that “Mr. Woodcock” was a comedy that often clicked for me. With nice performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Susan Sarandon, and Seann William Scott showing his range, it's a funny little ensemble piece with more going for it than a gimmick. Though the ending doesn't quite live up to the premise, it's still a nice piece about family, the past and the awkwardness of grown children whose widowed/divorced parents find love again.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character, a buzzcut-sporting sadist who delights in making the lives of the asthmatics, stutterers and misfits in his class a living hell. One of those misfits is John Farley (Seann William Scott). Once a chubby kid who suffered mightily under Mr. Woodcock's wrath, Farley, 15 years later, is a toothy, proverb-spouting author of a bestselling self-help book that is being considered for Oprah's Book Club. After flying back to his tiny Nebraska hometown to accept the Key to the City, Farley finds that not only has his mother (Susan Sarandon) fallen in love with his old nemesis, she has agreed to marry him. This sets off a kind of psychological Cold War between Farley and Woodcock, with Farley eventually enlisting the help of his old gang of middle school losers — now all grown-up losers — to try and find dirt they can use to break up the engagement of Woodcock and his mom.

While “Woodcock” worked for me, it's not going to work for everyone. Going after the rude, in-your-face comedy of “There's Something About Mary” but without the cohones to pull it off, “Woodcock” settles for some pretty tired jokes that we've seen in pretty much every “You Can't Go Home Again” comedy. That said, just as often, it comes up with some funny stuff, as when Farley finds himself trapped under Woodcock's bed as the coach gives the old horizontal takedown to Farley's mother, and a hilarious bit when Farley goes with Woodcock to visit Woodcock's elderly, even more sadistic father. Sadly, the script isn't quite funny enough to overcome its tired elements — especially the pat, too-neat ending, which comes across as something from the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

If you're a fan of Billy Bob Thornton or Susan Sarandon, you might try this just out of brand loyalty, and even the off-the-street viewer is bound to get a few laughs if they're bent toward the cynical “Election” kind of comedy. Without those draws, however — and movie tickets hovering around $8 — you might want to save this one for a look on DVD.

David Koon

‘Brave One'

Analytically, there's something sort of ridiculous about Jodie Foster: Action Star. Even her past turns in thrillers have had either a touch of victimhood (“Flightplan,” “Panic Room”) or sang-froid (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Inside Man”) rather than out-and-out ass-kickery. This shouldn't immediately turn you off of “The Brave One” — director Neil Jordan's (“The Crying Game,” “The Good Thief”) work has always been leavened with violence, as it sensitively investigates the dark underbellies of the world's metropolises. What should turn you off is that it's a mostly half-cocked endeavor.

Jodie Foster plays a public radio host, in love with her beloved New York City until she is brutally beaten and her fiance killed by thugs in Central Park. In a fugue, she picks up an illegal gun, and falls into a real spate of bad luck: a convenience store robbery (she avenges the clerk) and a subway mugging (she avenges a pothead NYU student), followed by saving a kidnapped hooker. This is less funny than it sounds, but also less interesting. If you're looking for some Bronson-style vigilante justice, you're going to have to deal with some exceptionally dumb voiceovers on morality. If you're looking for a gritty, serious reconsideration of justice and the individual, you're going to have to deal with some exceptionally dumb voiceovers on morality.

If you're looking for some good acting, well, you're a bit closer. At this point, praising Terrence Howard or Jodie Foster for giving effortless, thoughtful performances is just adding ink to an ocean. But it bears repeating: They're awesome. Howard lends genuine pathos and an unsuspected dash of humor and (in a disappointing twist ending) amorality to a role that could be a phoned-in “Law and Order” guest spot. Foster does admirably, even if the majority of her performance is delivered in the aforementioned Steven Seagal-isms.

And that's what makes this movie truly tragic: the notion that it could be better. It's not a distinct possibility — this isn't a case where just taking out the killings would make it. This isn't even a case where violence flattens or enhances the proceedings. What is there is deftly done, if shocking. This is an evocatively shot film that gestures at saying something, anything about timeless and unanswered themes (revenge, loss, the city) but then neatly cops out.

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