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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Benchwarmers

I love the Essex Cinemas. There is something remarkably welcoming whenever I come through the door. I know the feeling of exuberance I experience is because of the people who work there. I’ve never walked in without a smile and a greeting from whoever is closest to the entrance and every single staff person behind the counter or those who are usually up in the rafters running the projectors treat me like I belong there. I guess it is a feeling of acceptance, and that is, of course, something we all crave, beginning from the time we were kids in the classroom or out on the ball field, which is where The Benchwarmers begins.

Actually, to be precise, the story begins with Gus (Rob Schneider,
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo; 50 First Dates), a landscaper who happens to witness a bully from a local Little League team beat up a smaller boy, Nelson (Max Prado), who was on the ball field with his friends playing their own game when the bully showed up and demanded that they get lost even though the Little Leaguers did not have the field reserved for another hour. Gus intervenes, and by chance is joined by his buddies Richie (David Spade, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star; Joe Dirt), a smart-mouthed wimp from the local video store and by Clark (John Heder, Napoleon Dynamite; Just Like Heaven), a helmet-wearing thirty-something paperboy who still lives at home with his mother. They are hardly the Three Musketeers when it comes to rescuing the downtrodden, but when even they are called out by the bully, Troy, played so well you just want to smack him across the head by Danny McCarthy), the men find themselves in the awkward position of having to defend their own honor by playing ball against the young ruffians.

Both Clark and Richie are still as inept in adulthood as they were as children, and so it is on Gus’
shoulders to carry the game, which he does with an amazing streak of home run hits that more than makes up for his teammates constant strike-outs. Word travels fast about the men’s accomplishments and the local Little League coaches are not happy that the same nerds they picked on in grade school twenty five years earlier are now showing up and outplaying their sons. They still think of these guys as losers and instead of simply pointing out how ridiculous it is for these men to be playing against ten year olds these coaches look for ways to sabotage the guys in upcoming games.

Here enters Nelson’s father, Mel, a self-confessed nerd who is still a champion of the underdog. He also happens to richer than Bill Gates on his best day and seems to have bought George Lucas’ attic from the look of his home, filled with Star Wars’ memorabilia and tended to by a kindly robot named Number 7. Mel decides to pledge the money
to build a professional baseball stadium to whatever town’s Little League team can beat the men, now known by the media as The Benchwarmers. Of course Mel believes that The Benchwarmers will win against all the teams and the stadium will be built right where they live, but his real goal is to give kids like Nelson a chance to see that being different, being less than athletic, being overweight or whatever does not make a person less valuable or as important as the bullies who think they rule the world.

So sets the stage for a tournament that rallies the spirits of nerds, geeks, wimps, dorks, and dweebs everywhere to come out of the closet and be proud of who they are. In the case of Richie’s
brother, Howie (Nick Swardson), this is literally the case as he lives in a kitchen closet because he is afraid the sun is out to get him.

Okay, so this probably sounds like it could be a serious “message” movie, and under the guidance of someone other than director Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore; Problem Child) it could have ended up as a very special Hallmark Channel tv movie, but instead it is like an homage to every conceivable childhood prank and general gross-out behavior that boys of a certain age enjoy. Kids pin one boy down while a bully farts in his victim’s mouth. Boogers are flicked. And flicked. And flicked. Testicles are smashed, stomachs are hit with flying balls, and people get pelted with flying eggs. In other words, it is a “tween” boy’s dream come true.

The cast is at their best, doing the kind of shtick Spade and Lovitz know from their glory days on Saturday Night Live, and the addition of Heder is perfect. If ever there was the personification of nerd-dom it would have to have the face of Heder, who has already become a cult idol from his nerdy portrayal in Napoleon Dynamite.

The laughs are genuine and often in The Benchwarmers, and even though it is not going to win
any Academy Awards, it will definitely be a hit with the younger crowd and is still something their parents can enjoy along with them without boredom or embarrassment. You’ll have a ball with this one at the Essex Cinemas.

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