I’m suffering from Football withdrawal and all I could get my hands on was Varsity Blues

varsity-blues-movie-poster-1998-1020193373Not 24 hours removed from Cam Newton’s refusal to sacrifice his best dabbing arm in a live fire fumble recovery, I began to experience the first symptoms of acute football withdrawal.  Cold sweats followed the nervous twitches just like they have so many times before.  I anxiously searched for an appropriate backdrop to my afternoon on the phone navigating a home electronics warranty claim, when I saw Varsity Blues in the streaming queue.  It seemed like a beacon in the choppy seas of late winter programming so I dove in.

My spring 1999 recollection of Varsity Blues was an enjoyable send up of my recent high school antics and an adequate date movie for its time.  A date movie by definition is one that does not upset the often delicate tacit agreement that exists between two individuals who, in word or deed, are open to the idea of trading fluids with one another during or after having viewed said film.  One cannot reasonably expect to pull any significant trim after 2 hours of Trainspotting or American Psycho.   Varsity Blues is a drive right down the fairway in this regard, but does it stand on its own as a film?

To be clear, I wasn’t looking for Citizen Kane or anything even marginally relevant to the art of filmmaking.  Besides, 1999 wasn’t exactly a banner year in movies with American Beauty taking home 5 Oscars in a year where Saving Private Ryan and Being John Malkovich were both considered by the Academy.  Does Varsity Blues hold up?  That’s it.  I’ll start with the bad.

The Bad:

Overkill – We get it, Billy Bob is a morbidly obese redneck imbecile.  Any human being with a functional set of eyes could look at Billy Bob and just quietly assume that his alarm clock is a potato cannon that blasts him in the face with cheesesteaks every morning when the clock strikes 7:00.  Are we, the audience, so intellectually compromised that we need the director who blessed us Good Burger and Norbit to help us read between the lines and explain the nature of Billy Bob’s weight problem?  There was obviously no way to let the peanut-butter-dipped-pancakes gag hit the cutting room floor.  I can only hope that the droll script editor who insisted on naming Billy Bob’s pet pig “Bacon” has left comedy and found his true calling cleaning windows at a peep show.

Wouldn’t it have been a great send up of Pac 10 fans, graffiti artists and smug baristas everywhere if Billy Bob were vegan?  What if a 380 pound William Robert was as white as table salt, wore Blind Melon t-shirts un-ironically and chased everyone around telling them they’re raping planet Earth if they eat anything that casts a shadow? A montage of terrified juice bar employees could have been a nice touch.  I’m glad this director hasn’t worked since 2012.

The Accents – If you or I made a film set in a foreign land, we would make a token attempt to get one or two folks in the cast who actually speak the language.  Inglorious Bastards scores well here.  Diane Kruger, Mike Fassbender and the badass who plays Hugo Stiglitz all own German passports, but the Philadelphia born bum at the helm of Varsity Blues decided to grab 3 Californians, 1 broad from Jersey and one gigantically-skulled hobbit from Connecticut.  This is a major miscalculation for a story set in directional Texas because… let’s face it… Van Der Beek isn’t exactly Daniel Day-Lewis on screen.  At least Billy Bob is actually from the South.  Like me, he hails from Georgia which totally explains why he looks like he’s 2 months away from a Chris-Farley-magnitude heart attack.  The audience deserves more.

Plagiarism – We learn that the star quarterback is receiving painkilling injections for a bad knee under the direct supervision of head coach Bud Kilmer and just about everyone else in the stadium.  Need a little privacy?  Nope, just spike him in the equipment room where the kicker vomits at halftime. This imagery is blatantly robbed from North Dallas Forty with the only notable omission being Nick Nolte’s weird Greek fisherman’s cap.  I can only assume that Nolte’s contract actually required that he be injected with something during production and they figured they could just kill two birds with one stone.  Regardless, my experiences with Texas high school football coaches include their near-constant efforts to keep needles OUT of their players, but what do I know?  Later we see another scene “borrowed” from film history when Billy Bob and Moxon’s GF (well played by a pre-smoke-show Amy Smart) engage in a game of quarters at a post-game party.  The scene is effectively a shot-for-shot (pun intended) remake of the Himalayan bar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I’ve almost grown numb of Monster Energy swilling, skinny-jeans-wearing film makers systematically ruining the great films of my youth with dreadfully bad remakes and homages.  One day I’ll give up.

The Weird Little Brother – No one has an 11 year old little brother with enough awareness and patience to stick to a crucifixion gag for more than a few minutes.  The wiring required for such a mission belongs almost exclusively to only-children and future serial killers, yet “Kyle” is starting his own cult before the 3rd act.  The truly interesting part of the Kyle Moxon story doesn’t start until seven years after the release of the film.  The actor who played Kyle, Joseph D. Wolfgang Pichler, disappeared without a trace on January 6, 2006 and now appears as an open case in the NAMUS database (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System).  Turns out that roughly 600,000 missing persons are reported every year in the US.  At any given time, approximately 90,000 of those cases are active and though most people are located, the NAMUS system lists over 11,000 vetted long term cases.  Joey D can be identified by the red Star Wars tattoo on the inside of his left forearm.  If you see him, holler at me.

Bud Kilmer reminds me of someone – Played by Academy Award winner John Voight, West Canaan Head Coach Bud Kilmer is the worst person in the world, but there’s just no realism in his performance.  I can’t honestly believe that there’s a coach anywhere in Texas… anywhere in the country for that matter, who would so blatantly turn his back on humanity in the pursuit of wins on the football field.  Bud Kilmer yells at injured players.  Bud Kilmer tells the police to ignore West Canaan Wolves who are breaking the law.  I’m a little surprised that the film didn’t depict Coach Kilmer actively recruiting star players who were kicked off other teams for crimes against women.  At least, I can sleep soundly knowing that if there were such a filthy scumbag in real life, he would have been banned from the profession long ago.

Honorable Mention All-Bad Team Collective Soul, Rosters with all the diversity of a Morbid Angel concert, JNCO jeans, the billboard in Lance Harbor’s yard, the reality of strip clubs in small town America.

The Good:

Ms. Alison Elizabeth Larter at her best – Generations have their iconic film moments.  Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (that’s the white dress scene for the philistines among you) and Phoebe Cates at the pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High are two that immediately come to mind.  If you were a straight guy with a pulse in 1999, you were aware of Ali Larter and the whipped cream bikini in Varsity Blues.  Lord have mercy.  Her character in the movie, Darcy Sears, was fit, uninhibited… playful even.  There are no bad ideas with Darcy.  One might call her role the manifestation of sexual freedom within the idiot teenage brain.  Never mind that “real life Darcy” would probably run up your credit cards to support her meth habit and leave you with a disease that makes your blood glow in the dark.  Another grim reality is the certainty that Ali Larter is likely badgered about the whipped cream bikini on a near daily basis 17 years later.  At what age should you brief your children about the movie where “mommy wore dessert on her lady parts?”  What a depressing state of being.  One day, we’ll hear that Mila Kunis has cut a blogger in half with a Mac-10 after being asked about her 8 year relationship with Macaulay Culkin one too many times.  What a world in which we live.

This Movie is From the Future Part 1: Head Injuries – A full 3 years before Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Webster was super-gluing his teeth back into his skull, Varsity Blues used brain injury as a sub-plot in a MTV Films production.  The same folks responsible for Zoolander tripped over their own genitals and gave national exposure to a topic that would spark a billion dollar liability lawsuit and dominate the sports page a decade later.  In 1999, it was funny when your crazy uncle forgot what year it was for 3 hours after getting too close to power lines.   Just one too many blows to the head your relatives would explain.  Back then, brain damage was a great vehicle of deniability for poorly timed circumcision jokes, but it’s a different era now.  Now we need 60 page hold harmless agreements for finger painting classes (thanks China).  Regardless, the notion that Varsity Blues discussed concussions long before CTE deserves respect.

This Movie is From the Future Part 2: Bill Cosby + Roman Polanski – One year before the first whispers of Cliff Huxtable’s crimes, America was granted a comedic glimpse into premeditated assault by way of Scott Caan’s wild wide receiver Skeeter.  I find it more than a little troubling that the story presents absolutely no consequences to the activities of the person voted “Most Likely to Have His Stomach Pumped”.  I was also nonplussed at the naked patrol car scene, since I find anything with age-of-consent issues unsettling.  Skeeter is in the listed among the positives of this film because I believe we all know a “Skeeter type” to a certain degree.  They’re a living, breathing cautionary tale and they’re valuable because of that.  Every pill-popping Skeeter I’ve ever known eventually found himself on the floor of a strange apartment doing his best Stephen Hawking impression (I borrowed this imagery from WH… thank you sir).  A couple of them made it through the justice system with the valuable knowledge that no one wins at kiss-chicken in prison.  No one.

This Movie is From the Future Part 3: The Air Raid – One of the subtler plot lines is Mox’s endorsement of wide open offenses with bunch formations, laterals & QB throwbacks.  Don’t tell me that you weren’t warned America.  Please consider the following list of notable Air Raid coaches and their jobs while Varsity Blues was in production: Hal Mumme (HC – Kentucky), Mike Leach (OC- Kentucky), Sonny Dykes (WR – Northeast Louisiana), Bob Stoops (DC – Florida), Dana Holgarsen (QB – Mississippi College), Kevin Sumlin (WR – Purdue), Mike Gundy (QB – Maryland).  Mox was clearly ahead of his time.  One other thing… if you want to feel old, just know that if Mox had played at Brown University, he would have played against Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2003.  Oh yeah, the veteran of 11 NFL seasons is 5 years younger than Van Der Beek in real life.  Ouch.

Puke & Rally, Very Niiiiiiice and I don’t wont… yer life: These are just great additions to the lexicon that we owe to the same clown who wrote both the original Point Break and the cringe-inducing remake.  There’s archeological evidence that grains were being purposefully fermented more than 5000 years ago and I’m certain that the first Puke & Rally occurred within hours.  There’s nothing like invoking “I don’t wont… yer life” to defuse a case of nagging between friends.  Want to leave a party thrown by your wife’s friends?  Describe the host’s featured beverage as a “Panty Dropper!”… you’ll be on your way home in no time.

Honorable Mention All-Good Team: Ms. Davis, the Plano East announcers, high school hero dads, West Canaan Texas, did I mention Ali Larter?

That’s it, but now I’m more confused than normal.  Maybe any excuse to ponder football is all the merit I need.