"Varsity Blues" is the best film of 1999 thus far. Unfortunately, it is
also the first film I have seen from 1999. It is another one of those
small-town sports movies that involves a flawed, but good-heartedfrom
1999. It is another one of those small-town sports movies that involves
a flawed, but good-hearted protagonist; a rough and meanspirited coach;
and the "big game." By the end, will the underdog overcome great odds
and triumph? Will everyone in the town turn against the coach? Will the team
win the climactic game? Do cats bathe themselves regularly?
The so-called "hero" in question is John Moxin (James Van Der Beek), a
senior at West Canaan High School who plays for the varsity football
team, but is really just hoping to get a scholarship at Brown University
so that he can get out of the dead-end town. At least he's got the right
idea, since West Canaan, Texas is portrayed in the film as, frankly,
pathetic, with the whole town treating the weekly football games as the
Second Coming. Heck, in one scene, the front page of the town's
newspaper is proclaiming about the West Canaan Badgers' big win the
night before. When the team's star quarterback is severely injured,
tearing the ligaments in his leg, John finds himself taking over as the
team's leader, but his few minutes of glory do not last long, as he
begins to have problems with his girlfriend (Amy Smart) when she
discovers he spent an evening with another girl (Ali Larter). And after
staying out all night with his drinking buddies at a strip joint (all of
the teenagers in the film are portrayed as raging alcoholics), the team
loses their second-to-last game, putting John at feuds with the coach
(Jon Voight who, like Gary Oldman, is overstaying his welcome in the
typecasted role as the "bad guy"). Worse yet, the coach is threatening
to ruin John's scholarship chances if the Badgers don't win their final
The plotting of "Varsity Blues" is as old as the hills, and contains
every cliche in the book. Admittedly, I was never exactly bored while I
was watching it, but I hasten to add that I was rarely ever entertained.
Throughout, all I could really think of is how virtually the same exact
story had been filmed with a great deal more thoughtfulness and maturity
in 1983's "All the Right Moves."
One of the biggest problems I had with the film is how little of
interest any of the characters actually were, least of all certainly not
John, who, played by Van Der Beek (of TV's "Dawson's Creek"), is pretty
much a bore without any engaging qualities. While I probably shouldn't
blame this on Van Der Beek, since the inauspicious and "by-the-numbers"
screenplay by W. Peter Iliff isn't of any help, he is still certainly
not in the league of Tom Cruise in "All the Right Moves." The story
revolving around John, meanwhile, is extemely thin throughout,
particularly for its 104-minute running time, and it alternates between
uninspired comic relief (as in when the students see their sex education
teacher working as a stripper at the club) and heavy-handed melodrama.
The romance between John and his girlfriend had the potential to be an
adequate subplot, but we also learned very little about her, which is
unfortunate since Amy Smart, whom I don't think I've seen before in past
films, is probably the only character written with any sort of
intelligence. Smart does not allow her character to become the "passive
girlfriend," instead coming off as a young woman with her own ideas and
opinions. It's too bad the camera didn't linger on her long enough so we
could hear some of those thoughts.
The adult characters probably fare the worse of any, since they all must
play residents of a dim-witted town that cares about nothing but
football. John's relationship with his parents can also be telegraphed
far in advance. His father is set on him becoming a football player at a
university, but John doesn't want any part of that. His mother stands
beside her "big, strong husband" and is a passive female. Finally, Jon
Voight plays the stock bully coach character and he does nothing to make
the thankless role any more than one-dimensional.
Saving "Varsity Blues" from being a total washout are a few amusing
sequences, including one set in the sex education class, which did get a
laugh out of me. The scenes of playing football were well-shot and
thankfully didn't overstay their welcome, as many sports films fall
victim to. But leaving the theater, the question I had in my mind was
why did this film need to be made? I seem to be asking this question
quite a lot lately, since the same old stories seem to be cranking out
of Hollywood. Do we really need another high-school sports film? No, we
don't, and certainly not one of this low-caliber, which felt like a
cut-and-paste job of spare parts from much better, but similar, films.
"Varsity Blues," no doubt is the first one, however, to include an
earnest scene in which one of the characters is only wearing whipped
cream on their private parts.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman