Rated R - Running time: 1:44 - Released 1/15/99

I'm as much a fan of football as the next girl, but I must admit I don't see the point of movies like Brian Robbins's Varsity Blues, written by W. Peter Iliff. Football is entertaining because, theoretically, the outcome is not certain. But in Varsity Blues, it is never in doubt; we know from its list of trite and predictable plot elements: The home team is faced with some major handicap, and must fight against all odds. There is a love affair, some troubled players, and a problem coach. As we rush toward "the big game," it looks increasingly uncertain whether the team can overcome all these obstacles. Any guesses?

Luckily there are some good performances by some of the supporting players, which keep this film from being a complete waste of time — but a few good scenes are little help against stereotypical characterizations and a laughable storyline.

West Canaan, Texas is a small town with a big high school football record. The team's head coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) has a record of two state championships and 22 regional titles. With an undefeated season so far, it looks like the Coyotes are headed toward another triumphant finish, led by star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker). But a torn ligament ends Lance's career prematurely and puts second-string quarterback Jonathan Moxon (James Van Der Beek, Dawson's Creek) on the field, even though the coach hates him and he has hardly ever played. He is ready to step up to the challenge, but what he's not ready for is the sudden fame he achieves simply by being the Coyotes' starting QB.

Of the notable supporting performances mentioned, perhaps the best is by Ron Lester as Billy Bob, the huge offensive lineman who, after a slip-up that really wasn't his fault, blames himself for the team's downfall. Lester's Billy Bob starts out as nothing more than a syrup-swilling good ole boy, but develops into one of the best-defined characters in the film — with some actual emotion, which is rare elsewhere.

Van Der Beek is mostly like a deer caught in the headlights, never really showing us how "Mox" feels about anything. Voight's coach is the worst kind of cardboard cut-out (adding to his recent string of such characters), with apparently no life off the field. His open hatred for Mox makes us wonder why he put him on the team in the first place. And the two girls in the picture are also stock characters: Darcy (Ali Larter) is the cheerleader who wants to be with the quarterback, any quarterback, no matter who he is, because she thinks he'll be her "ticket out" of small town life. And Julie (Amy Smart) is Mox's girlfriend who loved him when he was a bench warmer but is turned off by his newfound stardom (even though Van Der Beek's characterization doesn't change one bit to provoke this).

There are glimmers of realism in these actors' performances, but not enough to sustain more than passing interest on the part of the audience. Awkwardly thrown in is a minor sub-plot involving Mox's spiritual little brother trying on various religions for size, which (I guess) is supposed to generate some kind of comic relief. But given the more serious tone of the rest of the film, it is completely out of place and damages the flow.

If you like thoughtful movies, don't bother. If you like football, you might enjoy the scenes on the field. But if you want to see a high school girl wearing nothing but a whipped-cream bikini, this is your film. **½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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