Somewhere under the glossy imbecility of Varsity Blues lurks an idea that could make a great American movie: a coming-of-age story in a setting where no one else has come of age, a place where the hero must find his way to maturity without a mentor. The setting, in this case, is the small town of West Canaan, Texas, where high school football is bigger than the NFL, where the quarterback is a celebrity, where even the sheriff defers to the varsity team's coach.
Initially it appears as if that coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), is being presented as the usual sports-flick authority figure--gruff and hard to please, but decent underneath. Instead, Coach turns out to be the villain, a ruddy-faced redneck martinet who truly thinks of the boys on his team as slabs of meat of varying levels of quality--to be used and used up in the service of bringing him success. (This brief deception is the film's one small claim to originality.)
Coach's assessment of his players also serves as a pretty fair way to characterize how director Brian Robbins looks at the young actors who play on his first string. A half-hour into the movie, I was still trying to sort them out. One, Ron Lester, is easy to remember: He portrays the spherically shaped blocker with the pet pig. Robbins leans heavily on this poor character for low comedy--the boy eats pancakes with peanut butter and a syrup chaser, performs an impromptu striptease, and vomits into a washing machine--and for lower pathos.
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Gradually the leaner cuts of beefcake become distinct from one another. They include Scott Caan, who seems to have taken lessons in Texas strut-and-gibber from Matthew McConaughey, and James Van Der Beek, a quietly likable young fellow who I'm told is already a heartthrob on TV. Van Der Beek plays the film's hero, Moxon, or "Mox" for short. (I feel queasy--where's the nearest washing machine?) Mox is a sensitive second-string QB who is thrust into the star role when misfortune strikes the starter. We know he's sensitive because he hides a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in his playbook, and because he gently turns down the advances of the gorgeous cheerleader, even when she approaches him wearing only whipped cream and cherries over her naughty bits. But lest we think he's some kind of fairy or somethin', he assures his steady girl--who seems neither as smart nor as sweet as the cheerleader--that he loves football "when it's pure."
It's difficult to imagine that anyone behind the cameras feels this way about moviemaking. Originally, somebody may have wanted the film to be a serious exploration of the dark side of high school sports, but it ended up as just one more sports picture. It's almost as if Coach Kilmer took over production at an early script conference: "All right, you little candy asses. We are gonna make this picture into something that people will want to come and see! We are going to give the imagery the hollow sheen of a TV beer commercial! We are going to include a scene at a strip club, and there will be a sultry, bespectacled sex-ed teacher out of an '80s rock video! We are going to give the hero a cute little brother for the preteen girls! And yes, by God, we are going to give these people a big come-from-behind game finale! And if any of you whiny artiste maggots don't like it, you can run cryin' back to film school! Am I makin' myself clear?"
As for Voight, who's becoming one of the busier hired guns around Hollywood, it's probably just as well that he didn't strain himself putting any depth into his role--let him save his energy for stuff like The General. His Coach has no more humanity, even as a villain, than the bronze statue of him that stands before West Canaan High. I hope, at least, that after the shoot Voight got to keep this prop for his front yard.
Directed by Brian Robbins. Written by John Gatins and W. Peter Iliff. Starring Jon Voight, James Van Der Beek, Scott Caan, and Ron Lester. Opens Friday.