|Posted by Justin Oberholtzer on November 18, 2010 at 7:12 AM|
Out of all the sports, basketball seems to get the most comedic treatment. Baseball comes close, possibly even besting it. Even so, nearly every basketball comedy seems to follow the same pattern, while baseball tends to differentiate. This is most likely why there are more memorable baseball comedies, such as Bull Durham and The Bad News Bears. With basketball, most of the sports best films comes from dramas, such as Hoosiers and Love & Basketball. The only basketball comedy as of late that I thought was really good was Just Wright. And that wasn’t because of the basketball aspect.
The main problem with basketball comedies is not that they all follow the same formula. Roger Ebert once said that there’s a formula for a reason; it works. The formula to making a basketball comedy seems to fail nearly every time. James C. Strouse had a chance to change this, but shot from the foul line and missed terribly. He follows all the conventions, never adding anything new.
This wouldn’t be a problem had he inserted some genuinely funny comedy. There’s not much of that here. All there is are missed opportunities or ones that were never built up in the first place. He tries to rectify this by adding in melodramatic moments between the coach and his team. But, that feels tired and predictable. Maybe it would have worked more had the characters been better developed.
Our main character, Bill (Sam Rockwell), has the emotional baggage to carry the drama. However, he’s too cruel early on and his transition to caring coach doesn’t make up for it. It feels too rushed to make a lasting impact, especially considering we all knew it was coming. It doesn’t help that the usually reliable Sam Rockwell seems bored throughout, only sparking when Bill throws a temper tantrum.
The reason he does so is because his life hasn’t gone according to plan. In High School, he was a star basketball player destined for College greatness. Then he fell in love with Stacey (Jessica Hecht) and had a child, Molly (Shana Dowdeswell). A few years later, they split, creating problems between he and his daughter. Life seemed to be picking up for him when he was hired as Plainville’s Boys Varsity team (what a perfect name for this movie, by the way). After an altercation involving his daughter, he is fired from the job.
This reduces him to busboy duty at a local restaurant. It isn’t until an old friend, Terry (Rob Corddry), comes to him with a job offer. He’s recently been promoted to Plainville High School President, giving him the right to choose the Girls Varsity Team coach. He offers it to Bill, who turns it down, as he doesn’t see girls basketball to be a legitimate sport. It’s not until further convincing (and a bit of berating) that he accepts the job.
What follows is what you’d expect from this plot. Bill hates his job at first, demeaning his players and behaving badly on the job. The girls fight back, proving they can be successful. As time goes on, Bill starts to warm up to his team, starting to act like an actual coach. They go on a winning streak, but have a few bumps in the road. Laughs are supposed to ensue, but rarely ever do.
Strouse does give the girls some baggage, which helps in moving the plot along and making things a tad bit interesting. Abby (Emma Roberts) is in a relationship with the school hunk, Damon (Connor Paolo), who mistreats her by ignoring her constantly. Wendy (Rooney Mara) is also in a bad relationship, this one with a man twice her age named Joel (Kevin Breznahan). Tamra (Meaghan Witri), the daughter of Terry, who is confused with her sexuality. Lisa (Shareeka Epps) and Kathy (Emily Rios) have some racial unnecessary racial tension, with Lisa being black and Kathy Mexican. Mindy (Melanie Hinkle) has a broken leg, yet somehow is still allowed to try out, and be on, the team. Then there’s Flor (Vanessa Gordillo), who appears halfway through the film for no apparent reason.
Though these side stories are never fleshed out, they do heighten the film’s interest. The potential is lost, but the intrigue is there. All of the girls do a fine job in their roles, with Watson and Mara unsurprisingly being the stand-outs (though I could make a case for Mara after her abysmal performances in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Youth in Revolt). The characters become more likable and relatable since Strouse gives each and every one attention. Some could have used better storylines, mainly Lisa and Kathy. However, it was nice to see them not get shafted for Rockwell and Corddry.
Strouse may have gotten the girls’ character development down right (to a degree), but he still comes across as lazy throughout. It never feels as if he’s trying, just floating by on a raft of clichés. There’s absolutely nothing new here in The Winning Season, and that includes the jokes. The only time the film starts to become funny is when Bill hires an assistant named Donna (Margo Martindale), who knows nothing about basketball. She provides some decent laughs, but not enough to salvage the mess already made.
The Winning Season’s problem isn’t that it’s formulaic. The problem is that it isn’t funny. The opportunities are there, but Strouse never strikes while the iron’s hot. He sets up the joke, but forgets to insert the punch line. When he does so, it’s usually a cheap joke on behalf of Bill’s alcoholism or apathy towards women’s sports. Which could have been funny if Rockwell would have seemed to care about the project. Not that I blame him, as there’s not much worth caring about here.
Final Rating: 2 out of 5 stars