S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Team-agers

 

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These days American cinema offers a lot of Satanic serial killer movies, filmed stand-up acts, and movies with Winona Ryder where she doesn't feel very well (one of which is a Satanic serial killer movie). But mostly it offers movies about teams. Even the most laser-pointer-preoccupied viewer can come to only one conclusion after watching The Replacements, Coyote Ugly, X-Men, Space Cowboys, Bring It On, The Crew, even art house fare like The Opportunists, in slide-show succession, with only the trailer for Charlie's Angels to break them up: They're all the same movie, and that movie is a cleaned-up version of The Bad News Bears. You'd have to go back to the films of World War II to find such concentrated emphasis on cooperation, group dynamics and collective purpose. Is Hollywood helping us get in shape for some new national crisis? Has the societal atomization decried by Robert Putnam and other seers prompted an equal and opposite movie reaction? Or is the new team spirit a ploy to stanch audience attrition by shaming disaffected loners back into the theater? Unplug that modem, Geek Boy, and buy a ticket for the sake of the team!

One thing's for certain: The new team movies are as undifferentiated as a squad of synchronized swimmers. They mirror each other scene-for-scene. That Hollywood can be formulaic won't be news to anyone who's ever seen as many as one-and-a-half lambada movies. But it hasn't been as formulaic as it's been this summer since Republic stopped making westerns and Allied Artists let the last Bowery Boy go. Would the underwater team movies U-571 and The Perfect Storm have been any more alike if they'd been made with the same cast? What if they switched casts? What if one were released as outtakes from the other on a special-edition DVD?

 

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The only difference is the way the movies divide along gender lines. The ones featuring teams of men present players who are old, tired, and doomed; the movies about teams of girls deliver young ladies who are disciplined, perky, and bound for success. It's men (not boys) vs. girls (not women), and the girls get the trophy every time.

The puritan porn flick Coyote Ugly is as much a team movie as the macho-but-heartwarming scab comedy The Replacements, and both are aimed at an audience used to whip-panning its collective head between its favorite team on the TV and its favorite waitress at Hooters. From their basic conceptions to their most trivial details, the same spring training got them to the screen. Both films feature motley groups of hard-working wage slaves humiliating themselves for a chance in the big show. They feature a main character with stage fright, tough coaches who are all about heart, sing-alongs to "I Will Survive," working class girls serving beers to sports fans, characters with absent parents, bar-top dancers who pose provocatively to distract players on opposing teams, men prancing and rubbing their nipples in imitation of strippers, teams spiced with foreigners, African-American teammates who exit the show early, and hugely obese figures of fun. The difference is that Piper Perabo writes a hit song and gets to lip-sync with the underaged Leann Rimes on the bar at the end of Coyote Ugly, while Keanu Reeves, who ends up in his cheerleader girlfriend's bar at the end of The Replacements, doesn't get to continue his NFL career once the strike is over. The films have similar scenarios, but Perabo, who looks like a teenager but is playing an adult, has to succeed. It would breaks hearts everywhere — or at least an inviolate producer's law — if she didn't. Reeves, playing wiser and more mature than he really is, gets a taste of success and goes back where he came from. Teenage girls must get what they want and real men must suffer; these aren't new ideas in the movies. It's the pervasive insistence on these ideas that's new.

In team movies as in team sports, coaches and owners provide the real competition. Gene Hackman and Jack Warden in The Replacements, William Devane and James Cromwell in Space Cowboys, and the Latin-American druglords in The Crew are really calling the shots. The most direct instance of men-in-suits who pull the strings is the staredown between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men. Like studio executives, they do little more than take meetings and nudge their self-styled maverick employees into acquiescence. With these characters, we witness the greenlighting of the movie on the screen. Even in Bring It On, the businessman dads open their wallets whenever their daughters need money to finance the exigencies of cheerleading. X-Men is the film that bridges the gender gap. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine may be a dysfunctional loner, but when he makes nice with teenage Anna Paquin he signs on to the only winning team in all these movies that isn't made up of barmaids and cheerleaders. Grumpy old man McKellen's dessicated Magneto is an emblem of the divide: Without Paquin's teen spirit, he can't power his weapon and get everyone in the world on his team.

 

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It's not surprising that Space Cowboys and The Crew, with their twin teams of four geezer actors hanging around in Florida, are two sides of the same worn-thinner Mercury dime. What's noteworthy is how much they have in common with all these other films, right up to Bring It On. More than puking scenes link them. Like all the main characters in these movies, Eastwood is told at least three times in Space Cowboys that he's not a team player before he gives in and suits up. Space suits aren't all that different from football uniforms; the superhero costumes in X-Men are rubberized hybrids of the outfits worn by cheerleaders and athletes. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in X-Men is at the top of the cheerleading pyramid in this regard: She's a body that looks eighteen years old wearing only blue paint. These movies are all concerned with the reign of the teenage body and its contrast with the flesh of old people. Strippers run through most of them, from the cookie-cutter cheerleading auditions in Bring It On and The Replacements to the bars in Coyote Ugly and The Crew. The contrast between, say, the fundraising car wash scene in Bring It On and the physical exam in Space Cowboys couldn't be starker. These pale, naked old men are the ghosts of an era that wasn't focused exclusively on teenage girls.

Race is the implanted subtext of both X-Men and Bring It On. It's a screen, a gimmick. The underpinnings in these movies are the metal joints in the hips of old men and the saline in the chests of young women. It's the difference between replacement and expansion. Whether they're in high school or whether they're pros on strike, standard-issue football players are depicted as dumbasses about to get pushed out-of-frame. What they're replaced with is either patched-together substitutes — worn-out models inexplicaby put back into service — or cheerleaders called into action from the sidelines where the filmmakers couldn't stop cutting to them anyway. Once they arrive, they start to multiply. Tommy Lee Jones goes on a suicide mission to save his team in Space Cowboys — what the hell, he's being eaten away by cancer anyway. In movies about teams of girls, it's all about enhancement. Unlike the men, who limp along on old knowledge and spare parts, the girls take something big — their spirit! — and make it bigger. They augment it. Coyote Ugly's Piper Perabo can't succeed in her musical career until she buys a computer. She's not exactly an X-Man, but for a cocktail waitress she's pretty close. By the end of Bring It On, hundreds of cheerleaders have shown up to throw each other into the air, and a vast swath of spinning adolescence fills the screen. Tommy Lee Jones, in his movie, is alone in outer space, a single obsolescent dot receding into the black vastness of the universe like a TV that's just been turned off for the last time.

 

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It's the Starship Troopers paradigm: Teen athletes thrown together regardless of gender pull together against a common enemy and learn that that's more important than anything left over from their back-stories. With their morale-boosting peacetime parade-ground choreography, these films have fused bomber crew movies with backstage musicals. Cheerleading replaces song and dance. Bring It On — a good-natured movie entirely about sports bras and rear ends — is the perfect combination. It shows the process by which bouncy chorus girls are turned into the athletes from Olympia. The one genuine crowd pleaser in the group, Bring It On is probably the only movie of the summer that anyone will remember with any real fondness.

It doesn't take preview cards to answer this question: Would you rather see Richard Dreyfuss giving Burt Reynolds mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a bathroom floor or two cheerleaders in bed together having a sleepover? In this summer's movies, the old men had their last shot at preserving the dignity of their genres, and they've faded away like old soldiers do. A regiment of teenage girls heralds new seasons of nothing but sports and war and world-saving superheroes. From Charlie's Angels to Men of Honor to Remember the Titans to Pearl Harbor, trailer after trailer announces nothing else. Just remember, football players and soldiers can be whipped into shape, but Cameron Diaz and her invisible boss already are in shape.

 

courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath

 

pictures Terry Colon



Slotcar Hatebath