'Mr. Woodcock'

Who would have guessed Stifler could go so soft?

Our old pal Seann William Scott from "American Pie" turns downright sentimental in "Mr. Woodcock," a reliving-middle-school nightmare that's often as obvious as its double entendre title.

Scott dials down his abrasive lad-on-the-make persona, probably too much, in this hit-or-miss farce about a sensitive self-help guru who faces his worst fears when his mom (Susan Sarandon) dates the gym teacher who tormented him in those formative years.

Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a perma-glower glued beneath those ever-hooded eyebrows, is the title character, the jerk who hurls abuse and pieces of sports equipment at his phys-ed classes, students whom he addresses as "ladies" even though they're boys.

"Go home to your mommas," he growls. "I don't tolerate losers in my gymnasium."

His solution to any physical or intellectual shortcoming, from asthma to not understanding rhetorical questions?

"Take a lap!"

Yeah, we all knew a Mr. Woodcock. But we haven't all come home, in triumph, to small town Nebraska to find mom in the throes of a passionate affair with our middle school nemesis, a man she plans to marry. That's what John Farley (Scott) faces in the middle of a book tour promoting his self-help tome, "Letting Go: How to Get Past Your Past." Naturally, he discovers he can't "let go" himself, no matter how many people he meets who quote his own pap back at him.

"Digging up the past muddies up the present."

This can't-miss proposition often does miss in the hands of former TV commercial director Craig Gillespie, who lets his younger co-star dial it down and phone it in. Scott doesn't let Farley melt down and the script doesn't give Woodcock enough of an edge. If the villain isn't more apparently over-the-top mean, that gives away how this little exercise in dueling definitions of "manhood" will end.

And while the laughs are here, they aren't sustained from scene to scene. It's BIG laugh, wait, BIG laugh, wait and wait some more.

But Thornton, in a watered down version of his "School for Scoundrels"/"Bad Santa" mode, is worth the price of admission. He never breaks character or breaks a smile.

The kid starts competing with the old gym teacher for mom's attention. And losing. Farley lives through endless flashbacks of the humiliation of his "fat years" and drops in on Woodcock tormenting another generation, even sharing his "tough love" with the senior citizens at the pool.

"You're not the first person to ever have a hip replacement. Boo-hoo. Take a lap!"

Sarandon is here to give weight to the sentimental side of the story, the lonely woman dating a man her son is determined to keep her away from. Amy Poehler, funny in every single movie she's been in this year ("Blades of Glory," "The Ex," even "Shrek the Third") devours the screen as Farley's alcoholic big-city publicist, losing it because her star author is wasting days in his home town when he could be doing "Oprah."

"I'm sorry, but you hicks just crack me up!"

Ethan Suplee plays another generic portly pal bit-part, and the lovely Melissa Sagemiller is utterly wasted as the girl Farley had a crush on back in school but who only knew him as "the fat kid."

A movie about self-help sissiness, competing visions of modern manhood and the mud-colored glasses we remember parts of the past through could have been another "Anger Management" or better. Gillespie goes for something sweet here, but never finds the sweet spot.

For Woodcock to deliver, the leads needed to amp things up, to bring their A-game, or at least match the effort they've thrown at previous versions of these characters.

No pain, no gain, ladies. Take a lap!

Get showtimes and movie details for "Mr. Woodcock."