Published January 1, 1999
Varsity Blues, directed by Brian (Good Burger) Robbins, is yet another in the seemingly endless procession of dumb Hollywood movies designed to attack the masculine virtues and what used to be thought of as the laudable American quality of the will to win. Like Affliction and The Thin Red Line in recent weeks, it seems to take particular offense at the suppression of emotion, while it portrays the highly successful Texas high school football coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), as a sadistic monster ready to sacrifice the health and safety of his young players just so that he can bring home another trophy for his trophy case. Curiously, however, he is not so obsessed with winning as not to be a “redneck racist” as well, putting his victories in jeopardy rather than allow a black player to make touchdowns. One begins to suspect that the authors were worried we would not hate him enough just for wanting to win, so they added this side to his personality in order to confirm us in our implacable hostility.
Jason Van Der Beek, a teen heartthrob on “Dawson’s Creek,” plays Jonathan Moxon, or Mox, the second string quarterback on the West Canaan Coyotes. He is happy living in the shadow of the dazzling Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), as he expects to be admitted to Brown University on a full scholarship (we know he’s an intellectual because he reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 while pretending to study his playbook) and so already has his ticket out of the hell-hole of West Canaan, as we are asked to believe it is. His father, an ex-football player himself (as is everybody in town, it seems), is much less happy about his not playing and, like the other fathers, urges him to be more competitive. Meanwhile, as a sort of counterpoint, Mox’s little brother, Kyle (Joe Pichler), plays at being a religious fanatic. “Is Kyle strapped to that cross again,” says Dad irritably.
“I’m preparin’ to die for all men’s sins,” says Kyle.
“Isn’t that sweet?” says lamebrain mom.
Do you think it’s possible that it is Southern culture more generally, and not just Texas high school football, which is under attack here?
Lance is injured on account of coach’s having pushed his players too hard, as usual, and Mox takes over, becoming a star himself. Now he has to cope with small-town Texas celebrity, prematurely tarty high-school girls (where were these girls when I was in high school?) throwing themselves at him and so forth. Will he stand up to it and remain unspoiled for Brown and Jules (Amy Smart), his rather plain but very progressive-minded girlfriend? What do you think?
We know from the very opening scenes that Mox, the sensitive, Vonnegut-reading intellectual, must lead the football players in a rebellion against the tyrant Kilmer. This happens after Lance gets injured and the man-mountain lineman, Billy Bob (Ron Lester), cries in the locker room because he, having also been driven beyond nature’s limits, let in the defender who flattened him. Billy Bob gets sent out of locker room and later pours his fat heart out to Mox about the terrible psychic cost of all these years of football. “We were just little kids, Mox,” he says with a whine of their years in pee wee football when they got pushed and “yelled at.” Oh dear.
So when in the climactic game the black running back is injured — in exactly the same place, amazingly enough, as Lance — and the evil, sadistic coach is on the point of injecting him with whatever the stuff is that ruined Lance’s hope of a scholarship to Florida State, Mox says he won’t go back out after half-time if he, the coach, goes through with the injection. The rest of the team joins him. The coach meekly walks out, and the boys are left to be inspired by Mox the egghead’s halftime talk. They will be gods, he says, and heroes if they just play their best and not be afraid, like Kilmer, of losing. Of course they win with the help of a razzle-dazzle play that Kilmer (quite sensibly) would not allow them to use. Take that you big, bad meanie!
Once more (in the movies at least) the mighty intellect of a sensitive ivy leaguer triumphs over the raw, redneck brutality of West Texas, even on its own terms. And if you believe that, you may even like this very silly movie.