Here’s an entirely fair-to-reveal, non-spoilery spoiler for the new football hagiography “When the Game Stands Tall”: It’s a crypto-Christian movie. Like “Mom’s Night Out,” there’s no mention of “When the Game“‘s faith-iness in the trailer or other mainstream promotional material, so the studio is gambling that audiences won’t feel deceived that a sermon has been Trojan-Horsed into their earnestly inspirational sports drama, and that those unsuspecting viewers might even appreciate the film’s obvious love of God and game.
If only there was much else to appreciate about “Coach Carter” and “Save the Last Dance” director Thomas Carter‘s shapeless, self-contradictory, fatally over-sincere fiasco. “When the Game” boasts an original, if parable-like, premise: A Californian high-school football team catastrophically breaks its winning streak of 151 games, then slowly regains the psychological and spiritual balance to triumph again.
But the script flounders from screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith’s ‘roided-out approach to their abstract journey: it’s so glutted with rousing speeches that the film feels less like an unfurling story than an enactment of a series of dramatic monologues — by performers of wildly varying acting abilities.
At the center of this mess is Jim Caviezel as real-life coach Bob Ladouceur, leader of the De La Salle High School football team. Smith and Carter whittle him down to a ESPN-ready saint, a self-effacing figure of awe always ready with a speech about doing the right thing. A post-heart attack confession about neglecting his wife (Laura Dern, warm and vibrant even when clearly slumming it) is so quickly forgotten it eventually feels like an affectation, like a hat he tried on once in a store. Likewise, the fact that he might have nepotistically chosen his own son (Matthew Daddario) to be a wide receiver over a more talented player is never explored.
Ladouceur’s appearance, too, is rather pastorly, with a stiff back, scholarly glasses, and a robotic remove. Caviezel overdoes the actual coach’s stoic gruffness (seen in the post-movie credits) and ends up an unblinking alien.
Fortunately, then, most of “When the Game” relies on Ladouceur’s students for dramatic tension. With five troubled teens to keep track of, the film’s ambition far exceeds its grasp. (The expansive scope is reminiscent of TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” but if that show is akin to a novel, “When the Game” is more like a bookmark with a Bible quote on it.)
Carter delivers heartwrenching performances from Stephan James and Ser’Darius Blain as two scholarship awardees with diverging paths — an optimistic college hopeful and a despairing orphan, respectively. Jessie Usher, too, gleams with charisma as a peacocking star needing a lesson about the meek and what they’ll inherit.
Daddario and Alexander Ludwig, on the other hand, flounder with flat-as-a-field lines like “It’s not about I; it’s about us,” and “The only way I’m getting out of this game is on a stretcher.” These subplots’ dramatic payoffs are inversely proportional to the actors’ talents, which is to say that we spend way too much time resolving Daddario and Ludwig’s characters’ daddy issues.
Ladouceur and his assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis, unrecognizable as a dead-ringer for a bald Stephen Root) would advise his players that winning is secondary to putting in the “perfect effort,” an idea the film interprets as the aggressive beauty of bodies in collision. To be sure, it’s thrilling to watch the raw crash of muscle against muscle, and Carter aims for maximum intensity with lots of shoulder-length shots. But today, it’s difficult not to think about the blows to the brains those young students are enduring, especially when injury is only brought up in the context of a joke or as one more obstacle to overcome.
The team’s scrapes and bruises during an important match against a rival team are simultaneously glorified and trivialized by a parallel to the film’s strange interlude, a trip to a VA hospital where former soldiers with missing limbs and reconstructed faces prove they’ve still got grit and a sense of humor. It’s a moving plea for compassion, if also one that’s jammed into the movie like tuna salad into jello.
Maybe that’s altogether fitting, because “When the Game” is like a bad seven-layer salad: it’s tempting in theory, but it’s really just a jumble of random ingredients that wind up supremely unappetizing in the aggregate.