After suffering a few release date changes and reshoots with a different director, "Mr. Woodcock" hit theatres and rounded up a decent gross before being on its way to DVD a few months later. The film was also hurt a little by the fact that star Billy Bob Thornton had done a very similar film ("School for Scoundrels") that was released to little notice. "Mr. Woodcock", while not without its flaws is - thankfully - a better film.
The picture stars Thornton as Mr. Woodcock, a nightmarish gym teacher who creates a hell for his students, throwing basketballs at them with lightning speed whenever it pleases him. Most of the kids remain traumatized by the experience, and it has turned one - John Farley (Seann William Scott) into a self-help author.
When Farley finds that he's been offered the key to his sleepy Nebraska town, he jumps on the next flight home, only to be confronted with the horrifying surprise that his mother, Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is now dating Woodcock, who is just as irritable as ever. While John tries to break up the relationship, his mother won't listen and Woodcock decides to take the relationship with John's mother to the next level. John tries to fight back with the help of an old classmate (Ethan Suplee, of "My Name is Earl") who was also terrorized by Woodcock.
What I liked about the film most is Thornton's performance. Thornton is certainly a highlight, as few can do slow-boil bitter and angry better than him. As we see in a scene where Woodcock bosses around a senior exercise class, the good side is buried not miles, but light years underneath. As Farley finds himself more and more determined to take his former gym tormentor out of the picture, he goes against his own "self-help" rules, one-by-one.
The picture does lighten up a little towards the conclusion, but not to the degree that it goes completely against the tone set by the film up to that point. The film is fairly dark at times, but does step back before really going over the line into pitch black comedy. It's too bad that the picture limits itself to the PG-13 rating, as an R would have really allowed the story to become the true nightmare scenario it seems to want to be. A couple of elements of the film, such as John's romance with Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller), are really afterthoughts and could have been dropped. However, at about 79 minutes + credits, the picture seems edited down quite a bit already.
The movie is, as mentioned before, an improvement over Thornton's "School For Scoundrels" and it is better than the kind of pre-release issues (reshoots, etc.) would lead one to believe. Still, the movie gets a few laughs and the performances aren't bad, but it just needs something more than that. Had it gone a little further with the idea and punched up a few of the gags (and added a few; even for a comedy, the picture is too thin), it would have been a more memorable picture.
VIDEO: "Mr. Woodcock" is presented by New Line in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is generally an excellent transfer from the studio, with only a few minor concerns. Sharpness and detail are quite good, as the picture remained crisp and clear throughout the show. Some minor grain was seen in a few scenes (as well as a slight instance or two of edge enhancement), but the picture was otherwise clean and clear. Colors looked natural and appeared accurate.
SOUND: The picture is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This was purely a "comedy mix", with little in the way of surround use nor much need for the rear speakers. Audio quality was fine, with crisp dialogue, music and ambience.
EXTRAS: Brief "making of" video, "PE Trauma Tales" featurette and deleted scenes.
Final Thoughts: "Mr. Woodcock" is the definition of a rental; the performances aren't bad, there are a few laughs, but in the end the brief film just isn't memorable enough. The DVD presentation offers fine audio/video quality and a few minor extras. Rent it.
The Film C+