Varsity Blues is dirty-minded, overstated garbage. Here is a film morbidly fascinated with simple-minded notions of humanity and level-one storytelling, yet so deluded by its wannabe-grandeur that it positions itself as the coming-of-age football story to end all coming-of-age football stories. The filmmakers make sure to remind the audience of that fact through every heart-tugging moment, every soul-searching soliloquy, and every powerful moment of self-actualization. The film is the thematic equivalent of the Slow Clap — and yes, there’s one of those in the movie, too.
Football is a fairly easy target for cinematic storytelling, but the Cult of Football is more complex and fascinating than meets the eye. It can make for some pretty gritty filmic material, too — and has, in better films like Friday Night Lights (which was released five years after Varsity Blues, apparently the amount of time it takes for filmmaking to evolve beyond the lowest common denominator). Varsity Blues is like the third grade version of Friday Night Lights — it only briefly stops for platitudes in between raucous jokes and boob shots. The film’s overbearing sincerity would usually mean that at least the filmmakers had their hearts in the right place, but in this film that’s not quite true — they just want to throw a nasty party and moralize their way out of it.
Varsity Blues is populated with a fairly large cast, though it features no whole ‘characters,’ per se; actors merely fill emotional ciphers of the screenwriter’s manipulation. James Van Der Beek plays the deep-thinking backup quarterback who uneasily wrestles with hometown fame when he’sthrust into the starting position. Will he overcome his struggle and find himself again? Jon Voight plays a coach so villainous he belongs in a comic book movie. Will he get his comeuppance? Ali Larter plays, in the film’s vernacular, the Town Slut. Will we learn what drives this promiscuous youth?
All of the answers are provided in convenient, blatantly obvious packages. There is no complexity to the conflicts these characters face, no reality to the way their stories develop. In all fairness, there does seem to be some solid material lurking beneath all the gushy grandstanding — in minor story threads of high school corruption, youthful apathy, and small-town hero worship — but the film is all too literal to explore any of those elements with honesty and nuance.
The film is also laden with a sexism the filmmakers seem to revel in, from Larter’s ill-defined sexpot to a sex-starved football jock played by Scott Caan, who frequently shouts about needing some ‘ass’ and sings songs with lyrics like, ‘She broke my heart, so I broke her jaw.’ There is also a mild-mannered sex-ed teacher whom the football jocks discover moonlighting as a stripper. When they see her on stage, she is mortified; they laugh and cheer and toast their beer mugs.
Varsity Blues is, in the end, equal parts raucous teen comedy and earnest small town hero drama. But its respect for tradition and staying true to oneself clashes very distractingly with its preoccupation with hedonism and debauchery. It is 50 percent comedy, 50 percent drama, and zero percent serious.