It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Billy Bob Thornton is in full "Bad Santa" mode in "Mr. Woodcock," an uneasy comedy about an adult who returns home to discover his mother is planning to marry the gym teacher who made his high school days a living hell. The thing about Thornton is, he makes no compromises and takes no prisoners when he plays guys like Woodcock. He's a hateful bastard, and he means it. That makes the movie better, actually, than if we sensed a heart of gold under the crust, but it doesn't exactly make it funnier.
Woodcock uses his position in authority to pick on the weak and helpless in his gym classes, including the overweight, the stuttering and those who are simply no good at physical education. He slams them with basketballs thrown at wounding velocity, he runs them around the gym for looking funny, he finds their weaknesses and mocks them. "It'll make men out of them," he explains. No, it won't. It'll make Woodcocks out of them.
Seann William Scott plays John Farley, the hometown boy who has gone out into the world and written a best-selling self-help book, which, like most self-help books, tells you the same things your mother and Norman Vincent Peale told you, and charges for the privilege. Anyone read The Secret lately? Give me a break. Anyway, from what we learn about it, Farley's book recycles the usual slogans and meaningless platitudes and has made him a celebrity.
But all his adult wealth and fame turn to ashes when he discovers his mom, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), is dating Mr. Woodcock, and all his old fears come back. Give Thornton and the director, Craig Gillespie, full points for playing Woodcock as an uncompromising, insulting, tactless, hurtful, sadistic buttwipe. When Farley finally challenges him to a fight, his reply is: "You must like getting spanked, Farley. I guess it runs in the family." Ouch. That's even in the trailer.