Sport comedies are a tricky proposition, and there’s a couple of reasons there aren’t a ton of good ones around. They either stick too closely to the beats of the traditional sport epics, rendering them kind of redundant (that last second play, the outsider coming good in the end, etc, not doing anything with the cliches); or they’re made by people who don’t understand why people enjoy watching or taking part in sport themselves. There’s probably a ton more reasons too – like all modern comedies having a low hit-rate, no matter the subject – but we need to get on with this review and can’t just keep listing reasons!
I was attracted to “Balls Out” by the trailer, featuring a number of current “Saturday Night Live” stars – Beck Bennett, Kate McKinnon and Jay Pharaoh (oddly, none of their characters really interact with each other at any point). The sport in question in this movie is intramural flag football. Colleges are super-curious places to a British outsider – as well as the sports which are on national TV and make millions for their colleges and organising body NCAA (although the actual players, the people who generate all this money, get nothing but an “education”, of course); there’s intramural sport, which seems to be more to do with the spirit of college. They’ll be more casual, more fun but will still have that team-building, healthy aspect to them – and one of them is “flag football”. It’s like American football, but instead of tackling , to end the play you need to grab a “flag” tied to a player’s waist.
In their junior year, the Panthers, a team of oddballs led by Casey (Jake Lacy), beats the Titans, the sort of fascist sport-jocks you get in movies like this, with the last play of the game – a play that leaves star receiver Grant paralysed from “the cock down” by Titans captain Dick (Bennett). The guys drift apart after this, and we see them again as fifth-year seniors (presumably, I suppose, for people who are studying super-complicated things?) Casey is getting ready for an entrance exam for Harvard Law School, and is in a relationship with Vicky (McKinnon), who seems entirely unsuited for him, or indeed any other reasonable human being – crazy eyes, worship of reality TV, complete ignorance of her boyfriend’s interests or ideas. So, to cut a long story short (plenty of meaty backstory packed into a short amount of time here, well done movie) he feels unsatisfied with his life and his now-impending marriage to Vicky, and decides to get the gang back together, along with his insane housemate Hank (Nick Rutherford).
All this is just an excuse for a comedy movie which is wildly over-the-top about something which has basically no consequence – an amateur bit of fun at college. The almost empty bleachers have a couple of commentators who are commentating to no-one – no recording equipment, and it’s not like anyone would listen anyway. It’s just a thing you have in sports movies, so those guys are there, and they’re great. The Titans treat every game as if it’s the last few minutes of the Superbowl, and our heroes on the Panthers (opera-singing farmhand, nerd, street magician, and ultra-slob) realise, with their various dull lives, how much they enjoy doing this too.
Every sports cliché is trotted out, handily spelled out by Grant – laid on perhaps too heavily, if we’re being honest – who becomes the crusty wheelchair-bound coach to the team, even though he’s the same age as them all. We get the training montage, the interpersonal conflict that turns into friendship, the gradual improvement, all of it. Casey then meets Meredith (Nikki Reed), a beautiful, friendly woman at a game who could not be any more different than Vicky – she likes cool movies and keeps up with him, joke for joke. She’s the villain’s sister too! And…here’s where the movie hits its first roadblock, I think.
McKinnon, an amazing comic actress, plays a monster who (hopefully) couldn’t exist in real life. I’d have no problem with her, if the “other woman” was OTT in a different way; but, the relationship that grows between Casey and Meredith is the same one we’ve seen in non-comedy movies (while still pretty unbelievable in its “could these guys be any more perfect for each other?”-ness, I suppose), and Casey’s awful behaviour (cheating on his fiancée) is rewarded while Vicky’s, well, isn’t. She’s treated too badly by the movie, and doesn’t fit with everything else, tonally. Thinking about it, she doesn’t really need to be in the movie at all (you could replace her with “the big job interview” or some other roadblock), and it’s a shame she didn’t get a meatier role.
The sad thing is, “Balls Out” absolutely nails every single other thing! The pacing is perfect, the jokes come thick and fast, the characters are hilarious (Rutherford especially is a complete revelation, and Bennett is as perfect a comedy villain as I’ve seen in a long time) and every bit part is filled with someone from a US comedy troupe – as well as the SNL people, we get BriTANick, Derrick Comedy and Good Neighbor – all competing to do the funniest turn. Some of the ideas, like Dick going absolutely nuclear in destroying Casey’s life, and the game against the all-female team, are just brilliantly done; but some of them just don’t feel like the filmmakers got the tone quite right.
Perhaps the best example (and one that won’t spoil the movie) is the “where are they now?” stuff that plays along with the end credits. They, really cleverly, don’t bother telling us if Casey and Meredith are still together, and Dick’s segment is perfect…but then they do lame old stuff like “this guy became President” and showing Vicky crying over being left for about ten seconds before just latching on to the nearest available guy.
There’s about two-thirds of a genuinely fantastic comedy movie here, one that shows an extraordinary amount of skill from second-time director Andrew Disney (great IMDB pic, by the way) and writer Bradley Jackson, who’d only done short films before this. Hell, two thirds of a fantastic movie is a great deal better than most comedies manage these days. And they were really, really close to going over the top to being full-blown classic, which is the only reason to be even slightly upset.
I feel like I’ve missed loads of what made “Balls Out” great, but that just gives you stuff to discover yourself. This movie is available on all the main streaming services, so get on it, and you won’t be disappointed.
Rating: thumbs up