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Billy Bob’s happily stuck in his role

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

In 2003, Billy Bob Thornton discovered his true cinematic person, and settled into it, comfy as a geezer in a Lay-Zee-Bum.
The film was “Bad Santa,” a perfect little classic of black humor. The role of just a mean old guy who says whatever he thinks seemed to fit Billy Bob like a glove, and he’s been playing variations on the character ever since.
So now we come to “Mr. Woodcock,” currently screening in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. It’s the Mean Ol’ Billy Bob all over again, and those of us who love him will love it, and everybody else (including 85 percent of the movie critics) will sneer down their pointy noses at it.

This time, M.O.B.B. appears as Mr. Woodcock, a legendary middle-school gym instructor who has, for decades, made life a living hell for those pale little wimps in P.E. class. Now there’s a nightmare for ya. The tale is told from the P.O.V. of one of his ex-students, now grown and a successful self-help book writer, played by Seann William Scott (who you might recognize from all those “American Pie”-type movies for morons)

Young Scott returns home and finds, much to his dismay, that his mom (Susan Sarandon) is actually fixing to marry Mr. Woodcock. Holy bejeebers! Just imagine your own evil, sadistic gym teacher snuggling up to your saintly Ma! I can’t get the image out of my head. I think my shrink just made a down payment on a new yacht.

Anway, that’s the setup and conflict, and I think most of the critics frowned upon such goings-on mainly because there are several (hilarious) scenes of Mr. W. treating his pathetic class of flabby little middle-school losers like they had just enrolled in a Nazi boot camp. “Child torture!” shouted the critics, hastily firing up their torches and forming a mob.

Well, it’s actually quite funny, in that deadpan Billy Bobbish way. After all, it’s black humor, and I’m kind of sorry that so many critics aren’t more open-minded about this film instead of being the pandering pussycats that cinematic political correctness has made them.

Good to see one of my favorite character actors turn up in “Mr. Woodcock.” Melissa Leo, who played Det. Sgt. Kay Howard in the mid-’90s “Homicide: Life on the Street” TV series, appears as Woodcock’s bizarre ex-wife.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for Billy Bob Thornton. Both on- and off-screen he’s never been afraid to explore the more bizarre aspects of life on this planet, with spectacular successes and thudding failures. Besides “Bad Santa,” he’s been in three films that are clearly among the best of their decade. “Sling Blade,” (1996), “A Simple Plan” (1998) and “Monster’s Ball” (2001) should be in anyone’s permanent collection, and don’t forget his work in the near-forgotten early-’90s TV series, “Hearts Afire.”

Even though B.B. is happily settled in his curmudgeonly film persona, he’ll continue to experiment with other odd characters, of course. He has three new films in the works for next year, one of them reuniting him with Halle Berry.

So good stuff on the horizon, gang.

I’d say “Mr. Woodcock” might qualify as the perfect Sense-O-Humor Meter. Got a new friend? See “Mr. Woodcock” with ‘em. They don’t laugh? Dump ‘em.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

Film buff’s alert! Big doin’s over in Staunton! You can catch the Virginia premiere of the highly-touted indy film “Pearl Diver,” opening Wednesday. Sidney King, the young writer/director of the film will be at the Dixie for a Q. and A. session after Friday night’s screening. It’s already won major awards at five different film festivals, so don’t miss this one.

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.