The pairing of demi-icons Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder in a movie was almost inevitable. "School for Scoundrels" proves a suitable if...

The pairing of demi-icons Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder in a movie was almost inevitable. “School for Scoundrels” proves a suitable if somewhat frustrating vehicle for their joint appearance.

Thornton, once best-known for such celebrated art-house fare as “Sling Blade” and “Monster’s Ball,” has excelled in recent years playing exemplary variations on a cranky degenerate in dark comedies like “Bad Santa” and “Bad News Bears.”

Meanwhile, Heder has been exploring the finer points of geekdom ever since “Napoleon Dynamite.” His dorky heroes (“The Benchwarmers”) have been ripe for the kind of contempt and sarcasm Thornton’s hard-nosed fiends routinely dish out.

Dish it out Thornton does in “School for Scoundrels,” as master manipulator Dr. P, who teaches an underground class full of losers the joys of male aggression.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“School for Scoundrels,” with Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Ben Stiller, Jacinda Barrett, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sarah Silverman, Horatio Sanz. Directed by Todd Phillips, from a screenplay by Phillips and Scot Armstrong, based on a 1960 script by Hal E. Chester and Patricia Moyes, itself based on a book by Stephen Potter. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence. Several theaters.

Like a relentless instructor at boot camp, Dr. P and his scary assistant (Michael Clarke Duncan) dismantle their students’ defenses and excuses via humiliation, merciless paintball battles and lessons in the art of seduction using outright lies. Unlike the classic image of a tough drill instructor, however, Dr. P doesn’t seem to have a sliver of compassion for his charges.

Worse, he is like an alpha beast in some wild animal group, reinforcing his power by taking what he wants.

One of his students is Roger (Heder), a parking enforcer so anxious about confrontations and timorous about approaching women that he faints under pressure. Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), a kind and attractive woman from Australia, catches Roger’s eye, but he’s helpless at asking her out.

Dr. P discreetly coaches Roger through the first, deception-laced stage of a relationship with Amanda — then moves in to conquer her himself. Roger fights back with unexpected gumption, and Dr. P responds in kind.

The thing that makes “School for Scoundrels” (inspired by a 1960 British comedy of the same title) fun is not so much the groin jokes or uncomfortable laughs about male fears of rape or even an obvious cameo from Ben Stiller as a crazed, former student of Dr. P. That sophomoric material is similar to director Todd Phillips’ earlier, dumber movies (“Road Trip,” “Starsky & Hutch”).

But Phillips clearly wants the audience to look past all that at a more interesting and provocative film within. That story juggles extremes of male types and experience without giving us a comfortable synthesis — the perfect man — to hold on to. Moreover, it’s easy to shift one’s sympathies from a vengeful Roger to Dr. P at times, and hard to determine at other times whether Dr. P’s play for Amanda is really just part of Roger’s training.

“School for Scoundrels” is intended to throw a viewer off balance, but in the best sense. While the film is demeaned by sight gags aimed at teenage boys, it has a smart center and delightful performances from Heder and Thornton.

Tom Keogh: