The star is Jon Heder, who came to fame in "Napoleon Dynamite" as the least of Napoleons, though maybe the funniest. That 2004 hit was about nerds, and Heder is reliably a nerd even looking cutely himself, not doofy Napoleon.But to call Heder a star is to cripple the term, as with Tom Green in "Freddy Got Fingered," Pia Zadora in "The Lonely Lady" or Andrew Dice Clay in "Adventures of Ford Fairlane."I
n his own career pit, Heder plays Roger, a New York cipher who works as a male meter maid. He seems intimidated even by pot holes, but the story resorts to heavier threats. It has big black guys with guns, screaming at him.
Roger, desperate, goes to the Learning Annex and signs up for a class in manly self-esteem with other ego empties. He is a real sucker, paying $5,000 cash in an envelope. The teacher is the surely larcenous Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), who favors verbal abuse to shake the men into being aggressive, in-your-face dorks, and has his own big black guy as enforcer - the biggest, Michael Clarke Duncan.
Pathetically written and shot to match (director and scripter Todd Phillips also deposited "Road Trip," "Frat House" and "Starsky & Hutch"), the movie soon flips Roger into a humiliation rivalry with Dr. P, who makes a smoothly brazen play for the girl Roger wants.
She is Amanda, acted by sweet, endlessly nice Jacinda Barrett as so clueless about both men that she borders on retarded. Her smile is so mechanical that she must be the real meter maid.
Roger learns to puff out his skimpy chest and use "bitch" as a verbal weapon. The name Gaylord is spoken as sure comedy (that was fairly well exhausted by "Meet the Parents"). Speaking of that film, Ben Stiller shows up here in one of his heavily made-up idiot roles, but after savoring his greasy hair, crazy stare and 50 cats, we've used up his contribution.
The movie is numbing because it has no true theme, style, shaping or payoff, unless you count Dr. P's being kicked in the crotch and nearly electrocuting himself with a cardiac fibrillator. Quite funny in "Bad Santa," Thornton now seems resigned to chug-along plot service, knowing that such work in New York beats making a $2 million Mongol cavalry epic in Taiwan. But not by much.
An MGM release. Director, main writer: Todd Phillips. Cast: Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clarke Duncan. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Rated PG-13. 1 star.