Jerk Academy

“School for Scoundrels”

MGM

Directed by Todd Phillips

Written by Phillips and Scot Armstrong

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jacinda Barrett and Ben Stiller

Rated PG-13/110 minutes

Opens Sept. 29

Three out of four stars

By now, it’s an accepted fact in the popular world that Billy Bob Thornton is a scoundrel, just like we know that the earth is round and that Wile E. Coyote will not fall until he looks down.

It’s also a known fact that Jon Heder is, and always will be, singularly known for his geek-tastic role as Napoleon Dynamite. No offense to him personally, but you just can’t see the man running from blossoming fireballs or laying cover fire for Bruce Willis (“Gosh! Why are these guys shooting at us? Idiots!”)

So why not bring two colossal constants together in one movie? Seems logical. Sort of like a Great Conjunction (without the Muppets) in which the scoundrel and the geek align and the world somehow changes for the better or the worse. Maybe someone will even laugh.

Dear reader, I have witnessed this conjunction-this meeting of dissimilar minds-and, yes, there were laughs. Not a lot of them, but enough to keep my head from lolling back in my chair.

In Todd Phillips’ “School of Scoundrels,” Thornton plays Dr. P, an inspirational guru of sorts who, instead of building up your self-confidence, tears it down wrecking-ball style and forces you to build anew. One of his methods involves a free-for-all paintball match in which his students earn a badge of predatory competitiveness by machine-gunning their fellow geeks and opponents in the treasure pouch. It’s not as funny as the filmmakers would like us to believe, nor is the scene in which the class members are forced to provoke random conflicts with strangers to prove-oh, I don’t know-that they can be a jerk at a moment’s notice? One of his pupils smashes the windshield of an innocent man’s car, and I didn’t want to laugh-I wanted to call the cops. It’s funny when a football accidentally finds its way to a man’s crotch. It’s not so funny when the throw is deliberate.

But I suppose that’s the point of Dr. P’s techniques. They are meant to transform his disciples into “scoundrels”-the type of cool jerks who attract leggy blondes whose relationship outlooks don’t go much farther than the bedroom.

Roger (Jon Heder) thinks he wants to be a scoundrel, but it’s just not in his genes. He’s a painfully shy and awfully sweet parking meter attendant with knees so knobby and inwardly bent that he appears to be in a perpetual state of needing to pee. He would like to ask out Amanda, the nice, attractive Aussie living across the hall, but if he faints every time he tries to talk to her, that might be a little difficult.

Amanda is played by Jacinda Barrett, who, after kissing Zach Braff and now Jon Heder, has captured the hearts of lovesick geeks across the country. Only in the movies, guys.

Roger attends Dr. P’s class and quickly becomes his star student. He absorbs the good doctor’s tips (“Don’t compliment the girl,” “Do something dangerous,” and my favorite, “Lie, lie, lie”), and soon he’s on a date with Amanda, pulsating with cool jerk vibes. We cringe, wishing Roger would just be himself, but then we remember his fainting spells and hope, maybe, he can find a happy medium.

Things liven up when Dr. P, insecure about Roger’s success in the class, starts to court Amanda himself. The two men compete for the girl’s affections, which brings out the “Bad Santa” in Thornton and the smiles in the audience. He’s great at playing a guy who chugs his rottenness like a good beer-bitter and loving it at the same time.

The material he’s given here isn’t as gut-bustingly nasty as when he suited up like St. Nick, but even mild Billy Bob is enough kick to spice up an evening.

“Oh! Not cool. Gosh!” Jon Heder rattles off his trademark phrases in “School for Scoundrels.”