Once upon a time, Jon Voight made great movies, won great awards and even had his great car immortalized in a “Seinfeld” episode. Now after his phoned-in performances in the likes of “Anaconda” and “Enemy of the State,” Voight has sunk to a new level of hell as Coach Kilmer in the high school football snoozer, “Varsity Blues.” It is a sad day indeed when a once-mighty movie god is upstaged by the likes of James Van Der Beek, better known to millions of screaming teenaged girls as the title character in television’s “Dawson’s Creek.”
“Varsity Blues” is exactly what you expect and have seen a thousand times before: the star quarterback, Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), is injured, forcing the bookish-yet-talented second-stringer John “Mox” Moxon (Van Der Beek), to step up and lead his team; the town lives and breathes football to the point where it is more important than family or school or work and the starting quarterback gets a billboard of himself on his front lawn; the coach will stop at nothing, even forcing injured players to hop themselves up on painkillers and play ’til they drop, to win. This is an old, old story, one that has been told too many times to make this time any different. We all know by now that prep football in small town America is a pressure-cooker, and while “Varsity Blues” could have tried to shed some harsh light on the subject, it instead goes the way of middle-of-the-road comedy.
Along the way Mox must choose between right and wrong in the form of his anti- football girlfriend and a whipped cream-clad cheerleader. Being the Ivy League-bound (and there we have yet another blip on the impossible-anywhere-but-the-film-world radar, as one of the more idiotic subplots revolves around Mox’s pay-or-play deal with the coach: he either plays and wins, or the evil Coach Kilmer will ruin his chances for matriculation at Brown) straight kid that he is, it’s little surprise which he picks, and of course he ultimately leads the team in a revolution that destroys their one-dimensional, one-track-minded coach. The script even makes room for a little racial tension in the form of a player not getting thrown the ball. It’s all so contrived and redundant that the more original set pieces and minimal plot twists of the film fall by the wayside.
A large part of the problem with “Varsity Blues” is its high unbelievability factor. Towns such as this little Texas football hamlet may very well exist, but couldn’t we at least watch a movie about them without being subjected to 400-pound linemen named Billy Bob (Ron Lester) with a penchant for whiskey and shotguns? Does everybody have to drive a pickup truck? Is it too much to ask that if these high school seniors don’t have curfews, then at least they ought to be reprimanded for, say, stealing a cop car while drunk and naked?
Van Der Beek and company are incredibly hokey, which isn't too surprising; Van Der Beek has never been any great source of star quality on his show, consistently upstaged by his costars. Here he must labor under the added burden of a horrible Southern accent that fades in and out as often as his character fades in and out of his coach’s favor. The rest of the cast is unimpressive save the empathy-squeezing sniveling and uncared for head traumas inflicted upon Billy Bob – those are just nauseating. Voight is by far the worst member of the cast, which is both pathetic and troubling. If he really needed a paycheck so badly, he should have just cut an endorsement deal with Depends adult diapers or Preparation H. It would have been a lot less embarrassing than his performance here.
And yet “Varsity Blues” isn’t really that terrible. It’s only mildly painful to sit through despite its transparency, which leaves us with one question: why? This is a poor star vehicle choice for Van Der Beek as it has little appeal to anyone over the age of 17. While teenage girls may make up most of his fan base, he doesn’t even satisfy them with removing his shirt (unlike the rest of the cast, including Billy Bob). It is doubtful that anyone has anything to gain from this movie other than the flavor-of-the-week bands on the soundtrack.
Director Brian Robbins has had a lot of experience with fictional representations of high school, having spent five years as bad boy Eric on TV’s “Head of the Class.” Perhaps he has had too much and is too far removed from reality, to the point where he is comfortable with teachers who moonlight as strippers and get wasted with their students. Or perhaps I expected too much from this film that is under the MTV Films banner, plays a Green Day song before the credits finish rolling and contains dialogue like “I love football when it’s pure.” Whatever the reason, “Varsity Blues” is a perfect example of exactly how and why January is typically used by the studios as a dumping ground for sub-par movies.