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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Invincible

Rounding out the trifecta of new releases at the Essex Cinemas this week, along with Little Miss Sunshine and Beerfest, is Invincible, Disney’s latest foray into the world of “based on real life” sports dramas.

Disney has already sought to swell the hearts and souls of audiences with its’ inspirational sports stories covering just about every sport there is. In the last fifteen years, they’ve given us The Greatest Game Ever Played (golf!), Cool Runnings (bobsledding), Mystery, Alaska (hockey), Miracle (more hockey, eh?), The Rookie (baseball), Remember the Titans (high school football), The
Game of their Lives (soccer), Hidalgo (long distance endurance horse racing), and Glory Road (basketball). About the only thing they haven’t covered is roller derby and professional wrestling, but considering the lack of enthusiasm that greeted the recent release of Nacho Libre maybe it is just as well they left that one alone anyway.

The question though is why Disney decided the time was ripe now for Invincible, another football
opus, this one starring Mark “Don’t’ call me ‘Marky Mark’” Wahlberg. I’ll confess that while I’ve been invincible to Mr. Wahlberg’s charms in considering him a particularly talented actor, I have seen most of his films and I’ll admit he inevitably fits the roles he plays nicely, mostly because they tend not to require any more emotional stretch than it would take for a yard of spandex to cover Nicole Richie’s emaciated bottom. Wahlberg is, after all, more of a movie star than an actor, in the vein of many of our most famous icons who are confused as having a “gift” to play something other than who they are. Not that this is something new. This same phenomenon has been a part of Hollywood for generations. Can anyone really say that John Wayne or Clark Gable ever played anything but the same characters over and over again, basically a version of their “real life” personas whether they were in westerns, war dramas, or in period pictures? So it seems is the case with Wahlberg, who here plays Vince Papale, a thirty year old part-time school teacher, part-time bartender, and full-time flop at being a husband.

Vince’s life is sliding quickly into the toilet as the movie opens as he quickly loses his teaching job and his wife packs up their apartment and moves out while he is at work one night at the local bar. If he had a dog, you just know it would get hit by a car before the opening credits roll. Life is just that lousy for Vince. The only thing that could make it worse was if he was starring in Beerfest, but that’s a whole different story. At least, since he’s living in 1976, he is unaware of how hideously he is dressed, but for those of us in the present, the fashion glimpse backwards is enough to make anyone old enough to have worn these clothes cringe while the rest of the audience laughs out loud. Fortunately for Vince, this is one indignity he is spared within the context of the plot.

So Vince’s very dull life (which so far makes for very dull viewing, by the way) holds only a small
glimmer of promise until the patrons of the bar where he works encourage him to go to the unprecedented open tryouts for the Philadelphia Eagles to be held the following weekend. It seems that Vince is the best back-lot football player the neighborhood has ever seen, and everybody believes he might have a chance to make the professional team except him. Well, almost everyone. There is Johnny (Dov Davidoff; Noise), who resides permanently at the barstool where “Norm” would be if this bar was “Cheers”, though Johnny would turn it into “Jeers” with his constantly gloomy pessimism. He doesn’t think anyone anywhere has a chance to succeed at much of anything. Fun guy, that Johnny.

Need you guess, despite the thousands of men who turn out for the chance to play, only one
makes the cut and so his life switches gears immediately as Vince enters into a frenzy of training. The Eagles’ new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear; also headlining this weekend’s Little Miss Sunshine) is taking over a complete failure of team, and his job hangs on whether he can bring these men back into focus and on the track to winning. He sees something is Papale, “heart’ he says, and despite the rest of the staff’s vote to oust the rookie before the season begins, Vermeil sticks by him and hopes for the best.

Okay, is there any doubt Vince will do something so incredible, so stupendous, and so astounding that he might just as well sprout wings and fly the ball over the goal posts? The tension in this movie is so non-existent that I found myself dreaming up things as it went along that, even if they were clichéd, would have made the story more compelling. When Vince plays a game of football with the neighborhood guys in a pouring rain a few days before his “big game” debut I was waiting, hoping, he would slip in the mud and break something, a rib, an arm, his skull, something
that would make his “BIG MOMENT” to come an exceptional feat of mind control over pain, but no such luck. I kept waiting for the disappearing Mrs. Papale, who left him at the beginning of the movie because he’d “never amount to anything” to make a surprise reappearance now that he was making the big bucks of a professional footballer, suddenly throwing herself on the guy, showing herself to be the tramp that she obviously was, and then demanding half of his newfound assets. Don’t you think with all the hullabaloo about “local boy makes good” going on in the press she would at least try to get in touch? But, alas, nope. I kept wondering when Johnny might go meshugah and hold the whole bar hostage in a jealous rage over Vince’s having escaped the lower class existence Johnny seemed resigned to wallow in bitterly forever. Nah. Even that thin hope evaporated. I pondered the fact that the director kept cutting back-and-forth to shots of a completely extraneous picket line at the Westinghouse Plant where some of Vince’s friends and his Dad had been working and guessed that this might lead to something earth-shattering, like a bomb going off that would kill Vince’s father right before the big game so he could win one for “the gipper.” I just wanted HIGH DRAMA. I wanted something to prove that Vince was Invincible. To me, surviving three decades of boredom is not the stuff of heroes. I’m sorry, Readers, but it just isn’t.

That’s the problem with Invincible. There is no problem. What inspired Disney to greenlight this picture is anybody’s guess. It’s not a bad story, and the acting is adequate enough, but there really
isn’t anything remarkable about Papale’s tale other than the fact that he was 30 when he joined the team. It’s bad enough that our culture tells women that size ‘0’ is a real size, but now men can be equally humiliated by paying money to sit in a theater and listen to “football players” tell them that once they’ve reached 30 they are nothing more than “old men” and “decrepit losers” as they repeatedly chide Wahlberg for the entire two hours of the film.

The oddest dénouement to the whole account is run during the credits when we see what became of the real life counterparts of the characters on-screen. Papale, we are told, played for three years, and now lives in New Jersey, presumably as bored and boring as ever, and Vermeil, it notes, led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1981, though it doesn’t mention that they lost 27 to 0 against the Oakland Raiders during that game. It also doesn’t mention that Vermeil then went on to retire, came out of retirement after 15 years to coach
the St. Louis Rams and more recently was head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. It would seem to me that if there was really a story to be told about someone who was Invincible Disney should have moved the camera over about two feet and focused on the coach instead. His story would have been a whole lot more compelling, especially since he holds the rare distinction of being named “Coach of the Year” on four levels: High School, Junior College, NCAA Division I and the NFL.

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