I Can't Believe I'm Writing a Positive Review of Mr. Woodcock
Every month, Hollywood rolls out a Big Dumb Movie: a “genre spoof,” Rob Schneider movie, Farrelly-inspired grossathon, or the annual Sandler opus. Most of them aim low: String together a few gross-out laughs, trot out some stereotypes, cast a hot girl-next-door type, and you’ll entice enough fifteen year olds on opening weekend to guarantee a profit. It’s just good business.
Occasionally, though, a Big Dumb Comedy actually tries to say something. It may not be anything important or philosophical, but there’s evidence of thought—of, perhaps, artistic intent. Last year, Borat and Idiocracy took aim at the excesses of American culture, heavily armed with dick jokes and funny accents. Who would have thought that a mid-August Steve Carrell movie featuring a brutal chest hair waxing would become a critical darling?
So, what makes a great Big Dumb Comedy? Of course, the story has to have at least a somewhat cohesive narrative that tries to develop the characters in some meaningful way. More than that, the jokes have to be grounded in this narrative for the movie to hold together—otherwise you just have a series of skits. The central idea doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be a strong enough foundation to support an hour and half worth of jokes. Meet the Fockers centers on the contrast between Red State parents Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner (and their rolling fortress of an RV) and the flaky free love of Blue Staters Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand. Fockers isn’t as politically daring as, say, Bulworth, but the movie holds together.
An inspired Big Dumb Comedy also gives similar attention to detail. A good comedy doesn’t just provide a backdrop for the star to mug in front of ; it stages the film so that it develops the characters and the narrative as well. The Forty Year Old Virgin’s apartment, with its perfectly preserved plastic wrapped action figures, tells you a lot about Andy Stitzer. The dirty neon of Idiocracy sums up Mike Judge’s vision of America’s future.
This is all to make an impassioned defense of a movie I can’t believe I liked. Hell, I loved Mr. Woodcock. I sensed that we were in competent hands during the opening scene in which Billy Bob Thornton, as Billy Bob Thornton in a sweatsuit with the faintest outline of paunch, lectures the boys about “personal responsibility.” You see, Mr. Woodcock teaches P.E. in small-town Nebraska, the heartland of conservatism. The gym was built with dark red brick; orange tape forms the square on the backboard; the school’s performance stage is at one end of court—you can even see a bit of the tarnish on Woodcock’s whistle. In other words, this school was built back when small towns still offered lots of good jobs. The script and the set design make it clear: Mr. Woodcock is a dinosaur of 50’s style conservatism that is growing extinct as these towns whither away. What’s the statement? That the conservative code phrase “personal responsibility” is simply an excuse to be a huge dick.
The tormented kid, John Farley (Seann William Scott), sublimates his rope-and-underwear torture into a career as a self-help guru of the Oprah school. “There must be a lot of losers out there,” reasons Woodcock. When Farley leaves his book tour to come home to accept the Corn Cob Key to the City (against the advice of his agent, played by a tack-sharp Amy Poehler, who told Nelson Mandela to “stop being a pussy” on his tour), his plane lands on the runway, serenaded by the town’s band. The band, though, is dwarfed by the single land of asphalt.
The film suggests a certain irony of Midwestern small town life, embodied in the stern dicketry of Mr. Woodcock: The “personal responsibility” people preach that success is all a function of hard work and discipline—and who defines that ethic more than the good people of Nebraska. The irony is that small towns, and the people that live there, have fallen on hard times because of factors far beyond their control. If “personal responsibility” is all you need, then what the hell happened to our towns?
What’s left? Retirees whose pensions afford them the small town life, and middle aged people who landed one of the good jobs left. The film asks us to accept that a MILF like Susan Sarandon would hook up with a guy who claims that “Water sports are for girls and sodomites,” but that’s just the way it is—two small town single people in decent shape with decent jobs, so they either hook up or go without. Even the laminate wood paneling in Mrs. Farley’s tells us that her best days, like her town’s, were during the Reagan administration. As for Woodcock, he’s trying to singlehandedly bully America back to the 1950s.
The flipside of this is John Farley, the self-help guru. This anti-Stifler represents the softness of post-Baby Boomers. The difference between the two is like that between Hank and Bobby Hill after Bobby quits the football team to play soccer. As much as we might hate Woodcock, surely Farley’s positive-thinking bullshit is no better. When the two face-off on the wrestling mat, you want to see Farley shed the blue sweater and open up a can of whoop-ass—but isn’t he, essentially, embracing his own inner Woodcock? Woodcock might be an absolute dick, but don’t you want him on that wall? As Farley himself admits, “Woodcock taught me to be a man.”
Beyond a close reading of Mr. Woodcock, there’s a lot of details grounded in this analysis that are really funny: Farley accepting the Corn Cob Key to a mangled rendition of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” competitive eating as a benchmark of machismo, and Amy Poehler’s alpha-female badgering of Farley on Good Morning America. This is good stuff, but there’s nothing that would explain why this movie sat on the shelf for three years. Likely, the studio expected Billy Bob to do his thing, Stifler to act cute, and they’d get this fun summer movie that they could market to teens and their parents. What they got was this mean-spirited, dark film about the decline of small town America. Read on those terms, you may not like Mr. Woodcock, but it deserves some respect.