CaddyshackWhen someone mentions this film, some common scenes usually come to mind:  A crazy gopher being pursued by Bill Murray.  A golf bag with a TV and stereo.  Chevy Chase sinking a half-dozen impossible putts.  And of course the visual lesson on the perils of introducing a Baby Ruth candy bar into a swimming pool full of wild teenagers.  And these scenes are, without a doubt, hilarious in their own right.  But the problem with Caddyshack is that the movie as a whole just doesn’t work very well.  It’s more like a collection of short vignettes strung together with the barest of plots that exists to serve as a showcase for quirky stars like Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase to chew some scenery.

I suppose that’s the appeal of this movie, though, and when every individual is a caricature, and the antagonist a wily gopher, it is incumbent on the viewer to not take any of the material too seriously.  But even with a hefty grain of salt, Caddyshack is still a strange amalgam of odd material that only loosely fits together, if at all.  Consider the plight of Carl Spackler, the dim-witted but indomitable country club groundskeeper charged with eliminating the gopher threat that has been plaguing the greens.  He embarks on a series of misguided attempts, much like a character in a Warner Brothers cartoon, to outsmart the gopher but is foiled at every turn.  His Final Solution is so outrageous, yet ultimately ineffective, that it’s hard to not laugh at the sheer spectacle of it all.

Caddyshack: Chevy Chase

Chevy Chase, proving that sometimes a blindfold is the best golf accessory.

It’s not the absurdity of the intertwining stories in Caddyshack that cripple the movie, it’s the way in which director Harold Ramis flips between Spackler and the rest of the movie without any apparent idea of where he’s going with all of it.  The plot wanders from country club to swimming pool to yacht club to suburban homes without any clear aim or goal other than to allow Dangerfield to spew forth a fountain of pithy one-liners or Chase to wax philosophical while hitting golf balls barefoot.  But before I get strung up as a soulless nincompoop who can’t just laugh at absurd comedy, rest assured that this movie certainly does have its funny bits.  It’s just that a couple bits of hilarity aren’t enough to concoct a solid comedy any more than a couple scoops of sugar are enough to bake a cake.

Perhaps my distaste for Caddyshack also comes from a dislike of Rodney Dangerfield, who commands a rather large amount of screen time for no discernible reason other than to showcase his unique brand of what some would consider comedy.  Hurling weak insults like someone with a mild case of tourrette’s is fine for a stand-up comic, but doesn’t work in a movie.  Literally every second that Dangerfield is on screen, his character Al Czervik is taunting, insulting, or dismissing everyone he lays eyes on.  The charm of such a character wears off almost immediately, and quickly turns into grating irritation.  Dangerfield’s character, removed by the barest margins from the man himself, is a one-trick pony who quickly wears out his welcome.

It’s been 30 years since Caddyshack made its way to theatres, and even though it has achieved cultlike status as a solid piece of comedy, I found it to be uneven and, at times, downright boring.  The cast is certainly having a good time.  I just wish it was a party the audience could enjoy too.


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Friday Night Lights

The faithful reader might remember a piece I posted last fall on Glory Road. Thad H. posted a comment on that piece suggesting that I might enjoy Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian “Mojo” Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in their bid for their 6th State Championship.

If you like high school football you’ll love this movie. It takes place in small-town Texas (Odessa, to be exact), where football is a religion and the high school players are hailed as much as NFL stars. Director Peter Berg serves up plenty of bone-bruising hits, body-bending catches, and tackles that have to involve a trampoline just off camera.

Odessa is a blue collar, nearly impoverished town, and there are two kinds of boys: those who might make it out of this town, and those who won’t. Those who might play their hearts out on the field in hopes of getting an NCAA scholarship. Those who won’t play their hearts out on the field because this is all they’ll ever have.

Beginning of the season.

All this creates an intense environment to grow up in. Gaines is threatened with termination if he doesn’t win State, and after one loss, comes home to find “for sale” signs all over his yard. One of his players, Don Billingsly (Gerrett Hedlund), is cursed to be the son of a local football legend, and not have his ability. For several painful scenes, Chuck Billingsly (Tim McGraw) verbally abuses Don and grinds him down for cut-ups on the field. The Panthers win most of their games, but people flagellate them for every mistake. All of this spills onto the field, of course, and Berg makes the action nasty enough that you wonder if this is a sports movie or the teen version of  Braveheart. If you enjoy watching young men get their noses smashed and fingers broken, this is the movie for you.

FNLdoes keep the audience involved. I kept backing it up to revisit what happened. The pacing is a little off, though. In a couple of close games, for example, Mojo is getting killed for awhile, Gaines yells a lot, and then suddenly they have some big plays, and end up winning or making it close. The film never builds your anticipation or shows what they changed on the field to get that result. A good sports movie would at least have some kind of inspirational speech that turns things around.

But why complain? This is a movie made for sports nuts, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a real game. There was only one thing about this film I really didn’t like. (Spoiler alert: you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

Target audience of "Friday Night Lights."

For the championship game, Mojo goes up against Dallas Carter, a team full of 300-pounders that hardly seem to belong in high school. As a matter of fact, in reality, D.C. was later stripped of its title for playing an ineligible player.

End of the season.

 No one expects Mojo to give D.C. any trouble. After being down as much as 21 points, Mojo comes back to close the gap to six, and then falls inches short of a TD at the last second. We then see a lot of slow motion walking across the field. One person walking is Don Billingsly. Chuck comes out of the stands and gives him a hug – which Don actually accepts! WTF?? Now that he’s fought overwhelming odds, covered himself in bruises and sprained every joint in his body, he’s good enough for acknowledgement from the man who’s treated him like dirt all his life, and he takes it?? I wanted him to push dad aside and congratulate his team, or kiss his girlfriend, or something.

A lot of guys love to talk about how football produces the best kind of men, and this movie was made for them. I tend to think the success of ex-players has less to do with qualities the game instills than the fact that having played for the local high school is a golden ticket into the local country club. It gets a little old having to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guys that played football. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy the drama that comes with sports, however. FNL succeeds at what it sets out to do, and for that I give it

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Glory Road

GR posterHistory has often shown us the power of sports to inflame people’s passions and sway their opinions. Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t miss a chance to cash-in on this fact. One such attempt is Glory Road.

The movie is a good illustration, however, of just how hard it is for movies to do what sports do. They rarely do anything to challenge our views, but rather reinforce our comfort in what we already assume. Ironically, they have a habit of acting as if they are saying something revolutionary. Consider, for instance, the end of Remember the Titans, from Jerry Bruckheimer, also the producer of Glory Road. The end of the film jumps to several years later, at a funeral, when the narrator, Sheryl Yoast, says “They say it can’t work, black and white. But when they do, we remember the Titans.” I found myself wondering “Just who are ‘they’?”

Glory Road sets the same mood as Titans, starting off at about the same time (mid-sixties) when schools, and therefore sports, were generally segregated. Josh Lucas of Secondhand Lions becomes a white Denzel Washington as Texas Western’s head basketball coach. What do you call a white man surrounded by five black men?

Frustrated with the lack of good players who want to play for TW, Lucas’ Don Haskins combs the ghettos and recruits seven black players for the team. This gives rise to the film’s first really cheesy line: “I don’t see color; I see skill and I see quick.” In the predictable spirit of Titans, for the most part, all black schools and black basketball teams seem to disappear, so the unsympathetic characters are all white (although they meet one team with a few black players midway through the movie). They win consistently, until the black players, angry over a graffiti incident, refuse to pass to the white ones, resulting in the season’s only loss. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Haskins decides to play only black players in the national championship game, and they go on to narrowly beat the all-white Kentucky team. So the question becomes, is Bruckheimer trying to convey the message that he was in Titans that the discipline brought on by working through racial tension builds strength, or is he simply saying that black guys play basketball better than white guys?

Either way, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. It’s never been any secret that competitive basketball became widely black as skill began to show through prejudice, and then became almost exclusively black when television took over and skill took a backseat to image. Ironically, the film has to establish a mentor-student relationship. Consequently, there are a few scenes of Haskins schooling black players on the court.


Let’s look at some of Hollywood’s other efforts to cross-breed sports and race. In 1992, The Mighty Ducks was released. A hot shot attorney (Emilio Estevez) is caught driving drunk and has to do the community service of coaching a washed-up athletic team from a poor district. In the tradition of Hollywood happy endings, he turns the team around completely and they win the league championship. At the championship, they meet the team that haunts Estevez’s memory – his childhood team, sponsored by a wealthy district. The players on this team are all essentially identical to one another, forming a single character more than a team of individuals. The Ducks, conversely, represent a schmorgasboard of cultures and personalities and provide the colorful characters that every movie needs (and that sports teams tend to suppress for unity).

It was no accident, of course, that Disney chose the sport of hockey as a setting for this story. It was the only sport where the “bad” team could be all white with any credibility. Once hockey was used up, Little Giants and The Big Green couldn’t present quite the same hegemony. I always looked forward to a similar movie about basketball. It figures that when one finally came, it would be set in the sixties.

I’ve been around the block enough that I’m comfortable saying a lot of black people will not find Glory Road particularly inspiring. Average black people have often complained  that the most athletic members of their culture hog the spotlight, leading their young men away from solid careers in a hopeless bid for stardom.                                                              Coach C poster

To round out my perspective I rented another basketball movie, Coach Carter, which addresses exactly that concern. Quite different from Road’s images of grandeur and triumph, Coach Carter ends with crushing defeat – on the court. But the epilogue shows success in much more important areas. Coach Carter is also more fun, because the team has a token white guy.

Here’s an idea for a basketball movie that would follow the standard formula, and would be a lot more fun. Start with a black coach in a ghetto neighborhood. Have him get pegged as an “Oreo,” or otherwise ostracized from the community. So he has to put his team together from neighborhoods outside his own. Naturally, this would involve including some white, Asian, and Hispanic members. Throw a few women onto the team just to shake things up. When his team goes up against a district full of all black, all male teams, no one would expect them to win – but hey, it’s a movie! Now you just need to figure out a way for the fate of the universe to hang on the championship game, and you’re set.

Can a basketball game really change the world? If it does, count on Hollywood to pretend they got there first. Perhaps the line from the Texas Western assistant coach rings true: “This is just proof that knuckle heads come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”

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