Varsity Blues (1999)
Directed by Brian Robbins
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Paul Walker, Ron Lester, Amy Smart, Ali Larter, Scott Caan.
1999 104 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, sexual situations, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 9, 1999.
"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-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 game.
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.
©1999 by Dustin Putman