By Will Ashton
Poor Jim Caviezel. Ten years ago, he was none other than Jesus himself in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Now, he’s been reduced to playing a high school football coach in the most generic, run-of-the-mill Christian underdog story in years, a.k.a. When the Game Stands Tall.
The De La Salle High School football team has had a streak like none other. They have won 151 football games in a row for the past eleven years, and don’t have any plans of slowing down anytime soon. But when their coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has a serious health condition, the fate of their team is put in unbalance. As the team goes through some other tragedies and emotional droughts, the high school team has to pick themselves back up and move forward, becoming bigger and better than ever before.
Had I not had a clock on me, I would have honestly guessed that this movie was two and a half hours long. Because that’s how stretched out and tedious this movie feels, even though it’s only a mere 115 minutes (including credits). Director Thomas Carter, coming back to the inspirational high school sports movie genre after making Coach Carter nine years ago, feels so determined to make every moment hit the right notes that he bangs the piano too loud to kill any subtlety or realistic character growth.
The only times the movie has any sense of genuineness is when Caviezel is on screen. Despite being pushed otherwise, his performance is grounded and emotionally honest, having it make sense why Coach Bob would be such a well-respected and well-liked man. His performance especially stands out when his players are such flat or poorly conceived characters, not made better by actors who try to milk every emotional cue they can in their limited screen time. The always likable Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis pop up here too, but their characters are too minuscule and underwritten that they can’t make them work.
Scott Marshall Smith’s script is so dead-set on playing it by the books that it is downright annoying. It’s almost as if they tired to make this movie as generic and run-of-the-mill as possible, without any sense of awareness or tongue-in-cheek cutesiness. Smith and Carter feel so uninspired by this material that it’s a wonder that they want us to feel moved by this story.
Besides Caviezel’s well-natured performance, there is nothing here that isn’t horribly tiresome or generically dull. Even the movie’s title is so passively under reaching. What does it even mean? I have to keep reminding myself it’s When the Game Stands Tall and not When the Grass Stands Tall. The later would even be more appropriate, given that this movie is about as much fun and moving as watching grass grow.
Anyway, I seem to have gone on some form of a tangent so I’ll go back to the movie. The biggest impression given by this movie is that it would have made for a great documentary. This is made more apparent when the real Coach Bob is shown over the movie’s credits. Ladouceur’s life and legacy is interesting and dynamic, to say the least. But by hitting all the same, tired story bullet points and mechanisms of the genre, it doesn’t earn any sense of emotional integrity or sense of honesty.
To see this coach doing his magic would not only make a bigger impact, but would make for a much more emotionally tugging film. Instead, this movie runs like a TV movie of yesteryear, the kind of movie-of-the-week that is more focused on the bottom line than producing something worthwhile.
When the Game Stands Tall is more than just a flat-line. It’s a time-wasting, emotionally dishonest inspiration movie that wants you to root for the winners when they are still winning. For a movie so by the books, you would think it would get the one thing it needed in there: actual underdogs.