From the character-building brutality of middle school gym class to the towers of psychobabble topping the best-seller list, Mr. Woodcock plants some succulent comedy in its antagonists and then lets the juice drain away. Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) is the Captain Bligh of calisthenics, basketball and wrestling, and John Farley (Seann William Scott) is a former flabby student who has trimmed down in adulthood and written a self-help book, Letting Go. What brings them together 13 years after Farley leaves his class is Woodcock's courtship of Farley's captivating mom, Beverly (Susan Sarandon). When Farley returns to his hometown of Forest Meadow, Neb., to accept the Corn Cob Key to the city during its annual Cornival, he resolves to disrupt his former teacher's plans to make his mom Mrs. Woodcock.
It's a sturdy premise for an Oedipal-nightmare comedy as well as for parodies of tough love and tender love alike. And the opening scenes promise a broad but lively and coherent farce. Sealing his face in a wrought-iron deadpan, Thornton makes Woodcock an alarmingly and uproariously unflappable figure of heartland machismo, especially when he's casually brutalizing 11- to 13-year-olds. Scott depicts Farley as an almost-grown heartthrob at half-beat -- something is holding him back, even though his book is all about letting go of the past. And Sarandon is delightful as a voluptuous woman in late prime, finding sexual satisfaction for the first time in decades and expressing her happiness with a wide-eyed generosity and delight in all sorts of appetite and emotion. The caption could read "Fulfilled at last" as she embraces both her boyfriend and her successful boy.
Mr. Woodcock (New Line Cinema) Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Rated PG-13. Time 95 minutes.