Back at the University for Movie Critics (UMC) — where we are taught to use an unnecessarily erudite lexicon, condescend to our readers, write on notepads in the dark, and dissect the enjoyment out of Disney films — we quickly learned that one of the overriding sins of the screenwriting trade is to follow an overworked narrative template. In the movie critic industry — dear weak-minded readers — we like to refer to this as formulaic (it’s fun to say; try it, out loud, in your cubicles). Most films in the horror and family-comedy genres tend to follow similar cliched blueprints, and for obvious reasons, we critics — who sit through 50 to 150 films a year — get irrationally fussy about it because, like anyone else, we like to be entertained.
But the “absence of formula = higher entertainment value” calculus doesn’t hold true for every genus of film; in particular, formulaic is something we expect (and covet) in a sports film, at least inasmuch as you are a beer-swilling, dick-swinging, testosterone-fueled, inexplicably-yell-at-the-screen-and-scare-the-poor-dog kind of sports fan. I mean, lookit: We endure year after year of pretty much the same thing, to slightly varying degrees. If you are a baseball fan, your team will play 162 games each year, win between 60 and 100, maybe go on to the playoffs, and if fate has handed the team the ultimate formula, the team will achieve definitive success in the World Series, and its MVP will assert the “storybook” success of his bat-wielding squad. It is that “storybook” that screenwriters in the sports-film genre seek to duplicate, replete with late-game heroics, the occasional off-the-field challenge, and — if we’re lucky — the overcoming of underdog status.
In some respect, the sports film merely condenses a successful six-month sports season into two hours; but, ultimately, we want the same result: Triumph in the final game. The better sports films follow generally the same plot schematic: 1) Assemble a team, probably choosing from a rag-tag pool of participants; 2) Whip poor/mediocre team into winning shape; 3) Deal with off-the-field challenges — social and cultural obstacles are preferred over the individual or romantic; 4) make a run toward the championship, generally accompanied by a musical montage of sports highlights and newspaper clips detailing the progress; 5) falter near the end; 6) overcome previously established obstacles (preferably of social or cultural importance) and regroup as team to win the highest achievement of the particular sport. Finis. And, for the most part, this is precisely the formula we want to see. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot better than watching the motherfucking New England Patriots roll over your favorite team in the playoffs and make a mockery of the best QB in the league every single goddamn year.
Which brings me to Glory Road, the latest “inspired by a true story” sports film to “tackle important cultural issues” on its way to goose-pimply championship glory. If you’ve seen Remember the Titans, you’ve basically seen Glory Road, Titans’ basketball counterpart.
Glory Road follows Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), the coach of a high school girls’ basketball team, who is offered an opportunity to coach Texas Western, an under-funded Division I basketball team in the 1965-66 season. In the film, Haskins takes a lousy all-white team and integrates seven black players into it and takes them to the national championship game, where he faces off against Kentucky’s coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight) and the all-white team led by Pat Riley. To be sure, screenwriters Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois took some dramatic liberties — for one, there were already three black players at Texas Western when Haskins showed up, and second, it took Haskins six years to get the team into the championship (and not just the one) — but overall, they deftly mesh the oft-preachy social commentary with basketball highlights and the pensive look of Josh Lucas contemplating the fate of a black basketball team playing in the racist South.
Certainly, there is absolutely nothing unexpected in Glory Road, but first-time director James Gartner competently executes the film, integrating Motown music and refusing to soft-pedal the overt (and ugly) racist incidents (or the bad puns [“hot doggo”]). And, while the speechifying and race rhetoric often feel overblown, hackneyed, and even a bit regressive, it’s hard to get too worked up about a filmmaker trying to inject some well-intentioned social awareness into a film about putting a goddamn ball through a net. Sure, the whole shebang is formulaic as hell (and the anachronistic, tricked-out MTVery ending lame on multiple levels), but a feel-good, rousing, throw-some-Gatorade-on-the-coach-and-celebrate-by-knocking-some-shit-down ending is ultimately what we want in a sports movie, and let met tell you, it sure beats the hell out of Peyton Manning throwing two interceptions and having his ass handed to him by the Pats … again. And most sports fans — who spend most of their sports-watching lives miserable (see, e.g., Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch) — will take any kind of victory we can get, even if it is overprocessed, Bruckheimerian, by-the-numbers, commercially slick hokum.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()