The summer is over, and Christmas is far away, so it must be September: that time of year when, as the Reuters news agency noted last weekend, the studios roll out their "prestige pictures" while dumping their "stale leftovers" on the multiplexes.
Guess which category Mr. Woodcock belongs to.
The film—which was shot more than two years ago and has apparently been sitting on a shelf somewhere ever since—stars Seann William Scott, best known for playing Stifler in the American Pie movies. Stifler, you may recall, was the rude, crude party boy who was shocked to discover that his mother had bedded one of his classmates. In his newest film, Scott plays John Farley, a nicer and much less abrasive figure who nevertheless finds himself in a similar predicament, when he learns that his widowed mother is dating, and having sex with, the strict, mean, heartless gym teacher whose classes traumatized John when he was just a boy.
The film begins by showing us one of those classes, as Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton) berates the boys in his charge. "Take a lap, lose the asthma," is a typically insensitive instruction, and Mr. Woodcock thinks nothing of hitting the boys with basketballs or insulting them the way a drill sergeant rants at his troops when they fail to succeed at the punitive exercises he gives them. It is easy to believe that little John Farley (Kyley Baldridge) would find the experience psychologically scarring.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and John (Scott) has grown up to become a popular motivational speaker and the author of a book that tells people "how to get past your past." He is on a book tour, signing autographs and giving his fans pat feel-good aphorisms like, "All I did was give you the raft. You had to inflate it yourself." And then he discovers his hometown would like to honour him at their "Cornival," a corn-themed festival where people say things like "Corn-gratulations!" to each other.
So John goes home, pays his mother Beverly (Susan Sarandon) a visit … and there he discovers to his horror that she is about to go on a date with Mr. Woodcock. Right away, something doesn't feel quite right. Beverly seems like a smart, decent woman—how could anyone played by Sarandon seem otherwise?—and she clearly loves her son, so it is hard to believe that she would have no memory of the teacher who caused her boy so much pain. For the film's premise to work, we also have to believe that she sees something in Mr. Woodcock that his students must have missed—but we get very little sense of what that might be, apart from his prowess in the sack.
John decides he has to break up the relationship somehow, so he teams up with an old classmate, Jay Nedderman (Ethan Suplee), to see if he can dig up any dirt on Mr. Woodcock. And, well, the story takes a few highly predictable turns. Note to future amateur detectives: When the ex-wife of your arch-nemesis tells you their marriage broke up because of "infidelity," try to find out whose infidelity it was before you embarrass everyone, not least yourself, by publicly making false accusations.