Mr. Woodcock
Both Less and More Than Expected

Mr. Woodcock is the PE teacher everyone feared—and with good cause. He “teaches” though humiliation, mockery, and sheer terror. No one wants to draw Mr. Woodcock’s attention: attention breeds derision; derision breeds humiliation; humiliation breeds the worst possible memories of embarrassment and shame that the school system can conjure up.

So imagine the surprise when (successful) self-help author John Farley returns to his hometown—only to find that the man who offered the majority of fodder for his book is engaged to his mother.

Susan Sarandon as Beverly in Mr. WoodcockRather than watch disaster unfold as his mother prepares to marry this unapologetic, crude, mean-spirited man become his stepfather, John sets out to bring to light the hard-nosed, brusque, uninspiring man who, through a few hours a week in school, caused at least one student to not only seek help, but write a book that might help his classmates recover from the trauma of the dreaded gymnasium.

Billy Bob Thornton, as the heartless PE teacher, does his usual excellent job in portraying a crusty, old-school control freak who sadistically enjoys watching young men shake in their gym shorts, finding humor and satisfaction in knowing that each of those poor young men would give anything to avoid attracting Mr. Woodcock’s attention.

So when John returns to find his mother preparing to become Mrs. Woodcock, the young man jumps into high gear, hoping to demonstrate his former teacher’s personality imperfections before it’s too late. Unfortunately things go wrong, and eventually none of the trio are speaking to each other at all. Eventually the reconciliations occur, but not in ways one might expect.

Honestly, this isn’t a deeply-rooted film with profound meaning, but I’m sure many men (and women) will relate to John’s early days in Woodcock’s gymnasium. Director Craig Gillespie does a fair job of coaching his actors into moderately humorous dialogue. While I only laughed aloud once, the audience with which I screened the film found the humor effective and engaging.

The films strengths are probably the cast and the chemistry between them. Thornton deftly plays a thorny middle-aged man wooing his lady; the gruffness is there, but it is not the only character trait Woodcock possesses. Susan Sarandon does well as a not-so-educated woman who probably falls a little too easily in love. Seann William Scott (as John Farley) plays a rather unremarkable character, though perhaps that is a directorial issue rather than a talent issue.

In short, Mr. Woodcock is a mildly humorous popcorn-munching flick. I have no doubt that the majority of audience members will have had experiences similar to those in the film—a kind of uncomfortable memory that makes all of us grown-ups glad we survived those tortuous, tremulous years of PE. Gillespie has offered a venue to remember those awful moments with perfect clarity in the deep darkness of a theater… and allow us, now, to laugh as we wonder how we ever made it through.

It should be noted that, surprisingly, there are no lewd and crude cracks about the name “Woodcock.” I, for one, was extremely relieved that the film could have just as easily been Mr. Smith, without changing the story or dialogue in the least. I applaud Gillespie for not using such low-brow gags to pull laughter from the audience.

Mr. Woodcock is rated PG-13 for “crude and sexual content, thematic material, language and a mild drug reference.” That’s a fair assessment. I think teens in middle and high school may squirm a bit due to the slightly too real embarrassment they themselves might be experiencing, so that might make good conversation fodder. Also worth discussion would be John’s interference and its effects on everyone’s relationships.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a promotional screening of Mr. Woodcock.