Dir: Todd Phillips. US.2006. 101mins.

Todd Phillips' new comedy School For Scoundrels seems divided against itself, telling two interconnectedstories that rarely cohere. It treads on familiar territory recognisablethrough Phillips' previous work (Road Trip,Old School), enlivened here by thepeculiar love triangle ensnaring Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Hederand Jacinda Barrett.

These talented actors givethe work an insouciance and bounce that is somewhat unwarranted. Phillips andhis usual collaborator, writer Scot Armstrong, have produced a hit and missaffair, but the funny, revealing moments are undercut by some outre racial andsexual material that seems at best awkwardly deployed, and which, at worst willoffend some.

A very loose remake of the1960 British film, this PG-13 rated feature should command a healthy opening onSept. 29 in advance of thematic competition EmployeeOf The Month and Man Of The Year before fading quickly.

Internationally, commercialprospects are less certain, since the movie's David Letterman brand of anarchichumour may travel less well. As with RoadTrip, and especially Old School,ancillary markets, particularly DVD, are the film's true likeliest source ofrevenue.

Napoleon Dynamite star Heder plays Roger, the story's passivelydowncast, maligned hero, a New York City parking attendant whose functionaryjob of distributing parking violation tickets yields an endless succession ofhumiliating episodes.

Distraught and broke, Rogeris invited by a sympathetic friend (Cross) to enrol in a mysterious,unsanctioned school operated by a savvy and aggressive operator self-identifiedas Dr P (Thornton). For $5,000 the school promises to transform Roger and theother ineffectual and browbeat men of the class into assertive modern warriorsand lady killers. The friend is an alumnus of the program. ("I used to be aloser, and now I'm dating two Asian chicks," he says.)

In the middle sections, Phillipsintroduces the secondary assortment of nerds and loners, grounding hissatirical observations in specific targets, from Stripes and Fight Club tothe fatuousness of the men's movement and self-help literature. Here the comedyhas a vitally funny and painfully aware shock of recognition.

Roger immediately benefitsfrom the class, gaining sufficient confidence to confront his past tormentors. Morespecifically, he finally has the guts to formally pursue his crush object,Amanda (Barrett), a beautiful Australian girl-next-door, from his apartmentbuilding. She agrees to a dinner date, and his likeability, sincerity and brashnesslead to a blossoming relationship.

But Roger's ascension in theclass comes too quickly and unleashes his mentor's possessive streak, beginningthe movie's less interesting second part. After Roger outmanoeuvres theprofessor's mammoth lieutenant (Duncan) in a simulated paint gun war, the academiccoordinates his own revenge plan of humiliating Roger by seducing Amanda.

The freewheeling material ofthe opening half now gives way to something far too predictable as the two men employdevious means to gain the upper hand. The plotting not only makes very littleinternal sense but Amanda is also far too smart and self-aware to fall for sucha transparent ploy. The edge and focus of the film are clipped and flattened,and the mercurial spontaneity and freshness quickly dissolve.

The actors redeem the movie asmuch as they are able. Heder brings his familiarloony touch to his physical comedy and Thornton draws on his devilish mannerand the amoral prickliness of his Bad Santapersona to sharp effect. Barrett is luminous, breathing life and grace to anunderwritten part.

Sarah Silverman and BenStiller (of Phillips' Starsky & Hutch) turn up in extended cameos;Silverman is allowed a few moments as Amanda's acerbic roommate, but Stiller offerslittle that is distinctive or new as one of the professor's past victims.

Clean cinematography and solidediting are smooth and polished without being particularly noteworthy.

Production companies
Scoundrel Productions
The Weinstein Co
Dimension Films
Media Talent Group
Todd Phillips Company

US distribution
MGM/Weinstein Co

International sales
Weinstein Co

Executive producers
Craig Mazin
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein

Daniel Goldberg
Geyer Kosinski
Todd Phillips

Todd Phillips
Scot Armstrong, from the 1960 screenplay by Hal E Chester and Patricia Moyes

Jonathan Brown

Leslie Jones
Dan Schalk

Production design
Nelson Coates

Christophe Beck

Main cast
Billy Bob Thornton
Jon Heder
Jacinda Barrett
David Cross
Michael Clarke Duncan
Ben Stiller
Sarah Silverman
Todd Louiso