1999, R, 99 min. Directed by Brian Robbins. Starring Tonie Perensky, Amy Smart, Ron Lester, Ali Larter, Paul Walker, Thomas F. Duffy, Scott Caan, Jon Voight, James Van Der Beek.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 15, 1999
MTV, which has almost entirely eliminated the M(usic) from its TV of late, has been slow to get into the film arena (Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Joe's Apartment are the company's two most prominent predecessors of Varsity Blues). You'd think with all the video directors the network has weaned, they'd be pumping out high-gloss ephemera at a steady clip by now, but that's not the case. Filmed in and around the Austin/Coupland/Elgin area, Varsity Blues is the MTV ethic distilled to its most pandering levels. It's also a lot of fun in that MTV way that made The Real World -- an ongoing soap opera about a revolving quintet of strangers -- such a long-running hit. Van Der Beek of Dawson's Creek, now with added musculature and raven locks, plays John Moxon, a second-string quarterback for the high school football team, the West Canaan Coyotes. Having spent the years putting up with the vagaries of small-town Texas life, he's itching to graduate and get into Brown -- in between plays on the field he surreptitiously reads a copy of Slaughterhouse Five that's tucked inside the playbook. Off the field, he spars with his football-lovin' dad, hangs out with his equally bright girlfriend, Julie (Smart), and bides his time, waiting for that magic E ticket out. This all changes when the Coyotes' star quarterback Lance Harbor (Walker) blows out a leg on the field and thus ushers in the thoroughly unanticipated era of Mox. Things change, and not necessarily for the better, as Mox suddenly finds himself the target of Lance's old steady Darcy (Larter) and a force for change under the iron rule of the team's coach Bud Kilmer (Voight), under whose leadership the school has won 23 division titles. Slick to the core, Varsity Blues isn't quite sure if it's a morality lesson (Coach Kilmer is as oily a sonovabitch as you're likely to see Voight play, pumping his players' mangled limbs full of steroids and berating his team like a Marine D.I. on a crack bender) or a coming-of-age comedy, and so it falls somewhere between the two. Pathos, of which there is much, comes in the form of vastly overweight linebacker Billy Bob (Lester, alternating between humor and horror) and the certifiable coach. Humor rears its braying head every time Mox's pal Tweeder (Caan) stumbles drunkenly onscreen or when a pesky cheerleader pops up in a whipped-cream bikini. Friday Night Lights it's not. To be fair, Varsity Blues is pretty entertaining stuff taken at face value. Some of the most bone-crunching, solar-plexus defenestrating gridiron footage I've ever seen is on fine display, and Van Der Beek heads up an excellent ensemble cast (including Austin's Perensky as a libidinous health-ed teacher). Still, its vague stabs at moralizing and goofball shenanigans are an odd mix. It's not the high school experience I had, nor is it probably like yours. It's MTV all the way.