Friday, January 15, 1999

Teen score

Movie: Varsity Blues

Posted on Fri, Jan 15, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 2.50

If you were too advanced for your high school (and who wasn't?), you probably had daydreams about: seeing your sex-ed teacher naked; ripping athletics from control of the coaches and making your own rules; having wild parties where even the cops couldn't stop you from having a great time; treating your parents like the goofballs they truly were.

Well, everybody has had fantasies like that. And in "Varsity Blues," you get to see them acted out on screen. Fun stuff. And even though the plot's pretty warmed-over and predictable, you'll get a kick out of it. Especially if precociousness and high school are recent parts of your emotional backpack.

James Van Der Beek plays the hero, the back-up quarterback of a Texas high-school team thrust into the spotlight after the starter ((Paul Walker) gets injured. The back-up stays at odds with the overbearing coach (Jon Voight, about to burst a neck artery every time he speaks) even as he wins games. Various subplots involve a social-climbing cheerleader ( Ali Larter), the starter's sister (Amy Smart), a held-back halfback (Eliel Swinton) and an overweight lineman (Ron Lester). We also get a look at James Caan's son, Scott, as a hell-raising receiver.

Everyone looks fresh and young, with enough disparate types for all us viewers to find a bit of familiarity in at least one.

Yet despite those market-tested elements, "Varsity Blues" somehow escapes having the phony feel of, say, a pretentious and manipulative puff piece like "Can't Hardly Wait." For one thing, Van Der Beek comfortably shoulders the lead role.

For another, director Brian Robbins gives the Texas scenery some dignity and his football scenes some head-banging authenticity. Dignity and authenticity were two descriptions notably missing from his debut film, the unwatchable Keenan & Kel vehicle "Good Burger."

And writer W. Peter Iliff doesn't denigrate the rural Texas setting of his story. Iliff, who has weightier credits in "Patriot Games" and "Point Break," strikes a suitable balance between caricature (jerk parents; obsessed coaches) and sympathetic characters (team members, cheerleaders).

Ever since Tom Cruise got his start as a restless high-school star in 1983's "All the Right Moves," aspiring actors have viewed teen-athlete flicks as vehicles as worthy as horror flicks for moving up on the big screen. This ensemble cast (and their director) bet correctly in "Varsity Blues."


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