I must admit, none of the commercials and none of the trailers I saw for this looked all that good. It looked like another dumb comedy that was destined to disappoint, perhaps not on the level of Epic Movie, but definitely at the lower end of the comedy scale. On top of that, stories of rewrites and re-shoots added to the very real reason to believe this would be something other than good.
Still, I found myself sitting in the theater opening night curious to see just how bad Mr. Woodcock was going to be. So, there I sat watching Billy Bob Thornton and Seann William Scott go toe to toe. Shock of shocks, I discovered the movie really wasn't all that bad. Sure, it wasn't all that good, but neither was it the complete train wreck I was expecting it to be.
The story begins in the past and is one that many kids can likely relate to. I am sure most of you can remember that one teacher who seemed to pick on you, or single you out when you make a mistake, or in some other manner ridicule you. I had a teacher like that, high school biology.
All of these stories tend to get amplified in our minds as time goes by. Mr. Woodcock is the personification of those exaggerated tales of teacher abuse. Just imagine that you're in gym class, you forgot your clothes (or someone hid/stole them, etc.), your teacher ridicules you and pegs you with a basketball. Pretty awful, huh? That's how this begins.
Following the introduction of our main players, the film jumps ahead in time. That picked-on kid is now all grown up and his name is John Farley (Seann William Scott). He used his hatred of Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) to turn his life around. No longer wishing to cling to that past, Farley has written a book, which has become a self-help best seller.
Upon returning to his hometown to receive an honor from the city, he finds that his widowed mother is dating the dreaded Woodcock. This does not sit well with John, and neither does the fact that Woodcock is being honored with the Educator of the Year award (especially shocking considering his methods probably cross the line into child abuse). Well, John wants none of it and sets out to break up the seemingly happy couple, even at the cost of ignoring the content of his own book which had served him so well to this point.
Surprisingly (I said that already, right?), the way it plays out has an unexpected amount of heart. While it builds to an easily foreseeable conclusion, it works out rather well. I found myself enjoying the interaction between Woodcock and Farley.
Even Susan Sarandon as John's mother is rather effective. The strength lies in what drives the characters. Could it have been executed better? Most definitely. Still, there is no denying that the wreck that the commercials seem to assure is avoided by the building blocks of the main trio.
Billy Bob Thornton has taken his cruelly apathetic Bad Santa character and given him a more pro-active mean streak. Rather than being content to mock those around him while engaging in self-destructive behavior, this character takes care of himself and has the carefully honed skill of centering in on flaws and exploiting them to perfect effect. This is a skill that he gets to put into use at every opportunity.
What you learn by the end of the film is that, whether he means it or not, his methods actually have an effect on the target. Seann William Scott embodies the person on the receiving end of the abuse. His Farley character is someone who has gone through a lot to get where he is today, seemingly without actually realizing the great extent of influence that Woodcock has had on his life journey. Finally, there is the attention-starved Beverly, who was widowed early and had to raise John alone. She is finally getting the attention of a man who seems emotionally stunted to most, yet has found a way to share himself beyond all reason with her.
Overall, the relationship that grows and changes between the three is rather sweet and completely positive. It is this that makes the movie succeed as much as it does. This does not mean it is a good movie. I kept waiting for it to go to the next level. It feels as if they are holding back from letting it become actually good or even excellent. It is this desire of wanting more, and the seeming desire of those in the film to take it further that has me withholding any more praise.
Bottom line. While much of the film lives in a decidedly sitcom-like world, this is a surprisingly decent movie. The characters go through an interesting arc and by the time the film ends certain truths have come to the surface that will forever change their lives. I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and I was wrong here. Still, this could have been much better even when I expected much worse.