The 400-Word-Review: When the Game Stands Tall
By Sean Collier
August 27, 2014
The world is full of compelling stories. Remarkable, notable or at least relatable things happen every day. Often, when encountering such a tale, someone will say, “You know, that’d make quite a movie.”
Those people are almost invariably wrong.
Take, for example, When the Game Stands Tall, an unbearably boring sports flick from director Thomas Carter. The mostly-true story is based on a nonfiction book profiling Bob Ladouceur, football coach for a private Catholic high school in California, who led his team to a record-setting 151 game winning streak from 1992 to 2004.
Right off the bat: that’s not interesting. A 151-game winning streak is a point of trivia, not a story. And as much as Ladouceur is presented as a patient and inspiring figure, it’s made clear (in one scene that’s never referenced again) that the team’s dominance has more to do with a lack of prime local competition than any unstoppable coaching methods.
Moreover, there’s a reason that sports films are usually about underdogs: the ascension of an unlikely hero is a compelling narrative. The dominance, insignificant faltering (the winning streak is broken during the events of the film) and return to dominance of a gridiron bully is not. And, unfortunate though it may be, stories of quiet figures who inspire those around them aren’t usually too gripping, either.
To make up for an almost total lack of conflict in the main narrative, screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith — who hasn’t had a script make it to feature in 13 years, and for good reason — peppers in undercooked subplots to kill time. One student is slain in a random act of violence; another clashes with an overbearing father; Ladouceur has a medical scare; a hotshot wide receiver gets a dose of humility. None of it adds to anything, only prolonging the unpleasant moments the audience will spend in the theater.
As Ladouceur, Jim Caviezel hearkens back to his career-defining role as Jesus, and not accidentally (the film has a underriding religious component). Laura Dern sleepwalks through a ornamental role as the coach’s wife, Bev. Michael Chiklis and Clancy Brown hit expected, but not thoughtless, notes as the assistant coach and an angry parent, respectively.
A half-dozen times, Ladouceur settles down an emotive teen by saying, “It’s just a high school football game.” If someone had said that in a pitch meeting, it would’ve saved a lot of trouble.
My Rating: 2/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark