Put me in, coach


Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

Written by Broken Lizard

Starring: Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Jay Chandrasekhar and Jurgen Prochnow

Rated R/110 minutes

Opened Aug. 25, 2006

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Sports movies and sports movie clichs spring eternal-there will always be an underdog who reaches the lofty pier of his opponent via a tightly edited and musically invigorating montage, and a concerned coach’s wife who leans in the doorframe of her husband’s office, urging him to put away that playbook and come to bed because “it’s getting late, hun.”

You can’t keep a reliable thing down. Filmmakers return again and again to the uplifting genre of sports-and the unstoppable drive of the human spirit as demonstrated through sports-and audiences turn up again and again to watch these movies. Or did audience demand come first? It’s the old “the chicken vs. the egg” argument, but for the sake of the less cynical, money-grubbing answer, let’s agree that sports movies have an inherent appeal to them that perpetuates their endless creation. People like to win, and they like to see other people win, too.

Movie critics roll their eyes at the very mention of a new “overcome the odds” sports movie, and with good reason: We’ve seen so many damned versions of them. But what we critics hate to admit (because it might expose us as softies who still have beating hearts) is that we also like to root for the underdog, just as long as we don’t catch the filmmakers extracting tears from our eyes with highly manipulative devices.

Yes, Virginia, it is possible for new entries in the sports movie pantheon to sneak past the well-trained defenses of a jaded movie critic. Two such movies opened this past weekend-“Invincible” and “Beerfest.” The former is successful because it honors its genre conventions instead of condescending to them, and the latter is successful because it’s hilarious.

“Invincible” stars Mark Wahlberg as legendary man-off-the-street Vince Papale, who, in 1976, actually did try out for the flailing Philadelphia Eagles and, against all odds, made the team. The open tryouts-a thinly veiled publicity stunt-were the idea of newly hired coach Dick Vermeil, played with lots of worried brow-furrowing by Greg Kinnear and his unfortunate ’70s hairpiece. Vince’s inclusion on the team gives hope to his out-of-work Philadelphia buddies and to the hundreds of thousands of Eagles fans who had written off the sad-sack team.

By the premise alone, you could probably map out the rest of the plot, point-by-point, lickety-split, just in time to derisively cluck your tongue at the next sentimental sports film in line. Even so, “Invincible” is ceaselessly watchable-the raw power of its story is undeniable, and its presentation, helmed by talented director Ericson Core, is technically flawless, from the period details (yes, those ’70s haircuts are stupendously, fluffily accurate) to the helmet-bashing football action.

“Invincible” spoke deeply to me, down to that little kid who still believes a nobody can become a somebody through sheer determination. Sure, that’s the idea behind such odorous films as “Rebound” and the multiple “Mighty Ducks” sequels, but this movie is well-acted, well-written and well-directed enough to make the clichs feel natural and not like marks on a checklist.

Wahlberg, with his floppy do and cinched waist, was born to play ’70s era characters (he did it so well in “Boogie Nights”). The actors who play his buddies feel authentically Philadelphian, and Elizabeth Banks, a rising star of radiance, beauty and humor (she was the hot-and-ready bookstore clerk in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), makes her role as the obligatory love interest seem absolutely essential.

There’s more at stake in “Invincible” than a big game-Vince carries the hopes and self-worth of an entire community on his wide shoulders. The movie is like “Cinderella Man” and “Seabiscuit” in that way, but more conventionally “Disney-fied.”

Far, far, FAR from Disney conventions is “Beerfest,” a raucous, raunchy comedy that was probably concocted in a blurry mind haze of marijuana and too many sudsy cool ones. The Broken Lizard troupe-the same team that brought us the subversively funny and overlooked 2001 movie “Super Troopers”-wrote the script not with a cohesive plot in mind, but with carefree, sketch-oriented abandon. If one joke falls flat, don’t worry, another one will soon take its place and nail your funny bone.

Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme and Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directed) make up the Broken Lizard quintet. Soter and Stolhanske play the Wolfhouse brothers, Jan and Todd, who stumble across an underground beer-drinking competition while in Germany to scatter their grandfather’s ashes. The proud German team (including Eric Christian Olsen and SNL’s Will Forte) puts the brothers’ chugging skills to shame, prompting Jan and Todd to return to the states, gather up a few friends (the rest of the Lizards) and train for a rematch-training which includes lots and lots and lots of drinking (lots and lots, I’m not kidding).

Humor is a matter of taste, and “Beerfest” is unapologetically in bad taste, wallowing in the kind of gloriously crude comedy that harks back to the good old days of “Animal House” and “Stripes.” You’ll either find this movie funny or simply unbearable. If the idea of manually ejaculating a frog (in the name of science, damnit!) sounds reprehensible, then take your $7.75 elsewhere. However, if the thought of impassioned ribbitting makes you giggle, then you’ll get your money’s worth.

So what makes “Beerfest” a sports movie? Isn’t drinking something you do while watching sports and not while participating in them? The movie lampoons the genre conventions-the inspiring speech, the scrappy underdogs, the too-cool-for-school competition-and throws in some gratuitous boobs and belches for good measure.

Whereas “Invincible” transcends the clichs, “Beerfest” lurks beneath them like a hungry shark, chomping down and thrashing them about. Both films respect us enough to shoot higher and run farther than most sports movies, twisting the derivative and delivering lots of fun.

“And now you will eat $10,000. Eat.” Some thugs take care of business in “Beerfest.”

“You dare to make fun of my period hairpiece? Meet my personal mercenary army.” Greg Kinnear acts tough in “Invincible.”