The high pressure world of high school football is the subject of Varsity Blues, a comedy with the ambition to be a drama, but without the necessary substance.
The story takes place in the small town of West Canaan, Texas, where high school football is the local religion. No one in town is more revered than Coach Kilmer (Jon Voight), who has brought home 22 Division Championships, and 2 State Championships. This season, he’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on yet another one.
His star this year is Quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), who just might collect that championship title singlehandedly. In Lance’s shadow is the academic-minded second-string QB, Jonathan “Mox” Moxon (James Van Der Beek). Though equally as talented as Lance, Mox is perfectly willing to let his friend take all the glory (after all, he’s dating Lance’s sister (Amy Smart)).
Mox loves the game, but senses that something just isn’t right. The parents of the players are more interested in the games than their children’s lives. Players are encouraged (and even expected) to play hurt. Even the dangerous exploits of players are laughed off by the townsfolk and local authorities. Mox realizes that everyone’s priorities are out of whack, but he’s willing to simply coast along and enjoy the ride.
The tone of Varsity Blues is severely disjointed. There are several moments throughout the film that feel realistic, as if we are being treated to an expose of the dark side of high school athletics. These scenes are clumsily mixed with the wildly implausible antics of the players and townsfolk of West Canaan.
Simultaneously condemning yet celebrating the culture of high school football, Varsity Blues tries to have it both ways. In the end, any statement the film may have been trying to make is lost in its overall phoniness of the movie. It is also difficult to merely enjoy the movie as a comedy, since the film’s constant references to the dramatic elements is like a thorn in the side.
Jon Voight delivers yet another hammy over-the-top villain in the rabid Coach Kilmer. He might have been a more interesting antagonist if he wasn’t so one-dimensional. James Van Der Beek is sympathetic as the kid who’s not only physically talented, but smart and wise to boot. Most of the other characters (such as Ron Lester’s Billy Bob, or Scott Caan’s Tweeder) are played purely for laughs.
Still, though it is flawed, Varsity Blues makes a strong case that a very good movie could be made about high school football. Varsity Blues is just not that movie.