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by: Scott Renshaw

It would be trite to compare West Texas high school football to a religion. It would also be inaccurate -- religious faithful generally demonstrate some sense of proportion. A cult would be more analagous, with thousands of people connecting their happiness to the achievements of mere mortals to whom greater powers are ascribed. Or perhaps rudimentary tribal warfare is more appropriate. Or even basic psychological child abuse. In short, the singular phenomenon that is West Texas high school football is the stuff of which great American stories could be made.

Or, VARSITY BLUES could be made. This glossy youth melodrama stars "Dawson's Creek" poster boy James Van Der Beek as Jonathan "Mox" Moxon, a bookish senior backup quarterback for the West Canaan (TX) Coyotes. Mox plays football because it's what you're expected to do in West Canaan, but he's content to remain in the shadow of his best friend, star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), while waiting for admission to Brown University. Then a season-ending knee injury sidelines Lance, forcing the capable and creative Mox into the spotlight -- and into the line of fire of autocratic, revered and feared Coyote coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight).

The bulk of the film involves Mox's response to the adulation his new role as star brings him -- will Mox be true to himself and his girlfriend Julie (Amy Smart), or will he be seduced by fame, football, and head cheerleader Darcy (Ali Larter)? As the exceedingly pleasant Van Der Beek plays him, there's never much question at all. Mox is a Boy Scout whose only lapse in judgment occurs in an effort at another good deed, bringing Lance out to a strip club to cheer him up. He's a broad strokes hero like Kilmer -- who's not only a martinet, but a racist just for good measure -- is a broad strokes villain. At least a couple of the supporting characters (notably Scott Caan as the team wild man and Ron Lester as a massive lineman) show sparks of life. Dramatically, Mox is a flatline.

That inconsequential plot progression wastes plenty of potentially compelling conflict. Mox's father (Thomas Duffy), himself a former Coyote, is proud of his straight-A student son for the first time when Mox becomes a football star, yet that relationship is played only for laughs or speeches. The emotional center of VARSITY BLUES should have been the pressure and twisted values that make high school kids believe nothing they ever do will be as valuable, a sentiment expressed in Kilmer's pep talk that the big game is "48 minutes for the next 48 years of your lives." Though director Brian Robbins (making a dramatic leap from GOOD BURGER) nails the atmosphere of abandoned Friday night streets, W. Peter Iliff's script uses it mostly as scenery for a typical teen soap opera. It's as though they went to the Amish country, then decided to make "Dawson's Creek - The Movie."

Of course, the intended audience for VARSITY BLUES is the same as the audience for "Dawson's Creek": high school students themselves, little interested in studies of small town sociology. It's worth noting that Robbins and Ilif include at least a few insightful scenes -- including one player's rage against how much he's always hated the game -- between the obligatory T&A and party-hearty scenes. This isn't THE LAST PICTURE SHOW we're talking about, nor was it ever likely to be, but it could have aimed for something slightly more ambitious than a climax where all that matters is whether the Coyotes can win the big game. That's not just uninspired -- given the setting, it's painfully ironic.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 gridironies: 4.


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