Perfection is impossible. That’s the message of the fact-based “When the Game Stands Tall,” a by-the-book sports drama based on the storied De La Salle Spartans, the high school football team whose 151-game winning streak, achieved between 1992 and 2003, remains a national record. But rather than explaining how this private Catholic school in Concord, Calif., and its coach, Bob Ladouceur, achieved this remarkable feat, “Game” is more interested in what happened after the streak ended.
As the movie opens in late 2003, the Spartans are about to win their 12th straight state championship. Yet when they do, the victory is not received with a sense of gratitude, humility or surprise, but with the inevitability of a foregone conclusion. Then Ladouceur — known as Coach Lad and played by Jim Caviezel with a tight-jawed stoicism that makes his Bible-thumping character disappointingly dull — has a heart attack, a star player (Stephan James) meets a tragic fate and the team loses the first game of the 2004 season.
Their golden world, it seems, has come to an end.
How the Spartans — the individual players, the team as a whole and the coach — come back from these setbacks provides the substance of the movie, whose moral is encapsulated in Coach Lad’s locker-room philosophy, articulated ad nauseam: Winning is less important than the “perfect effort.”
By that standard alone, “When the Game Stands Tall” is a less than vigorous attempt to win over anyone besides the most die-hard consumers of sports cliches. How hard, for example, did screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith (whose script is based on a book by Neil Hayes) wrack his brain to come up with such lines as “It’s no longer about who the bigger, faster, stronger players are; it’s about who plays with more heart.”
That sideline platitude, familiar to anyone who has ever listened to a postgame interview with an athlete, coach, fan or color commentator, is a mere drop in a Gatorade barrel of athletic bromides that are dumped over the heads of the audience during this film, which, as you might expect, all comes down to one play. The fact that the audio mysteriously dropped out during the final two minutes of a preview screening mattered not a whit. The conclusion plays out like a kind of dumb show, performed by helmeted mimes. Who needs to hear the climax when you’ve seen it a dozen times before?
What’s more, the blatant product placement by Dick’s Sporting Goods, whose brand and logo are splashed all over the movie — including one scene just outside a store, with characters carrying full shopping bags — goes beyond unsubtle commercialism to distasteful pandering.
Of course, “Game” tries to be about more than football, as all of these movies do. There are racial, class and economic tensions between some of the team’s black and white players, including the coach’s son (Matthew Daddario). He, like his mother (Laura Dern), has issues with the emotionally distant coach. Accusations of cheating also crop up, as does the theme of graceful losing, although these subplots are ancillary to the movie’s main thrust.
That would be the drive toward the goal line. Honor, humility and that most overworked of organs — heart — all get to play a few minutes of this “Game.” But when it comes down to fourth and goal, the movie is more about moving the pigskin than moving the audience. Ironically, “When the Game Stands Tall” isn’t about keeping gridiron glory in perspective, but about blowing it out of proportion.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic material, a scene of violence and brief smoking. 115 minutes.