The best joke in Matt Groening's "How to Be a Film Critic" strip--an episode of "Life in Hell" from many years back--involved what he labeled "cinema's greatest paradox": "Comedies are funny; sex is funny; the French are funny; yet no French sex comedies are funny." I was reminded of this gag while dozing through Warner Bros.' The Replacements, the story of a patchwork pro football team striving for the big brass ring, and an altogether listless affair that drove me to formulate an alternate version of Groening's Axiom: sports are compelling; Hollywood movies are compelling; yet.... Sure, individual sports flicks have offered thrilling moments (the slow-motion light show that ends The Natural invariably comes to mind), but by and large films that attempt to duplicate the particular thrills of big-time spectator sports fall well short of the mark. I'm not entirely sure why. It's not as if sports and movies are totally irreconcilable art forms. While sporting events do not quite tell "stories," they do boast some of the qualities (goals, deadlines, the intensification of action) that define dramatic narrative. On the other hand, the outcomes of real-world sporting events are always in doubt. Underdogs stand a statistically smaller chance of winning, but we root them on for that very reason, and investing emotionally in a team that likely will break your heart is a risk that yields significant returns should they pull it together for a final, winning charge. In Hollywood cinema, however, the outcomes of sporting events are almost never in doubt. Commercial directors don't have the guts to pull the rug out from under their Every-slobs, and even on those rare occasions when the good guys lose (think the original Rocky, before the corrective sequels), they still "win" because they're the ones who grew from the experience, the ones who weather defeat with more class than the victors handle the spoils. With the result predetermined, spectators have little reason to invest and therefore little to gain. And if you can't guess the outcome of the big game at the climax of The Replacements even prior to buying your ticket, you should bypass the theater and consult a neurologist. Directed by veteran hack Howard Deutch, The Replacements chronicles the efforts of Coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman, locked in a neck-and-neck race with Robert DeNiro to see who can pile up the most humiliating parts in the twilight of an illustrious career) in restocking a pro football team--the "Washington Sentinels"--that's been decimated by a players' strike but is still within shouting distance of a playoff berth. The scabs picked for the Sentinels' revamped roster are the usual assortment of loose cannons, each supplied with the requisite lone distinguishing character trait (deafness, to cite one memorable example) so the addled viewer really can tell the players without a scorecard. Deutch's passion for the banal permeates the film, which alternates moments of locker-room humor with intense close-ups of men exchanging meaningful glances as they internalize deep, time-tested truths about honor and glory, all punctuated by target-demographic-pleasing shots of lap-dancers-cum-cheerleaders molesting each other. As they stumble their way toward the movie's foregone conclusion, the no-doubt-handsomely-paid actors acquit themselves with all of the dignity they can muster for a story of scrappy underdogs performing for love over money. Top-billed Keanu Reeves looks appropriately embarrassed as quarterback Shane Falco, a washed-up, concussion-prone young gun thrust into a leadership role he's not quite ready for. Only Orlando Jones--he of "Make 7Up Yours" fame--as a butterfingered wideout really shines, even though he's saddled with the unenviable task of leading the ragtag rowdies in a spirited rendition of "I Will Survive," the kind of turn usually reserved in contemporary Hollywood films for stepmothers with cancer.
For a film allegedly inspired by the 1987 NFL work stoppage, The Replacements doesn't offer much of a history lesson. Yet perhaps its depiction of a professional football team populated by has-beens, washouts and out-and-out sociopaths is in fact intended to offer a tantalizing glimpse into the future of organized sports. Are you ready for the XFL?