Editor’s note: This review was originally published on April 20, 2014, as part of our Tribeca Film Festival coverage.
There’s nothing quite like a sports-centric film to get the blood pumping, the heart racing, and the tears flowing – and that’s just what happens when most people watch an Air Bud outing – but it’s hard to deny that most of the emotional responses that sports movies stir up in their audience come from a carefully laid out set of tropes and some standard plot movements. Consider the sports film playbook, stacked with underdogs and wild plans and offbeat coaching and a last-minute save to win the big game. You know it, and you know it well – fortunately, so do Balls Out director Andrew Disney and screenwriter Bradley Jackson.
The film opens on a rowdy and ragtag group of freshmen, led by best pals Caleb (Jake Lacy) and Grant (Nick Kocher), who are just minutes away from winning the big! intramural! football! championship! game! Of course, no one else is actually watching the game, save for the seemingly self-installed color commentary team of Bill (D.C. Pierson) and Dan (Jay Pharoah), but the dudes seem invested enough in their little game of flag football fun, and why not let them have that joy? And, yes, there is joy – because the good-time Panthers pull out a last-minute win (complete with a crazy play!) against the evil Titans, led by the hilariously nefarious Dick (Beck Bennett).
That joy is short-lived.
A brutal (well, “brutal” in terms of intramural football) hit leaves Grant paralyzed “from the balls down,” though his physical pain pales in comparison to Caleb’s mental anguish over the entire incident. Terrified that something else could happen in the throes (or, yes, throws) of another intramural outing, the team disbands, both when it comes to sports and when it comes to their actual friendships.
Four years later, Caleb is a fifth year senior attempting to figure out the rest of his life – a daunting prospect even in the best of times, but one made even more horrible (and, yes, hilarious) by his screeching wacko of a girlfriend (Kate McKinnon, who must have prepared for her role by watching a lot of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and yes, that’s a compliment). A chance encounter sparks something in Caleb – he needs to get the team back together and win one more championship — and he sets about doing just that, in mock-epic style.
Balls Out quite effectively sends up just about every sports film trope and tradition that litter the genre – a long-form “crazy coaching” sequence is utterly inspired and features some of the film’s very best gags – while still maintaining a clear narrative and even a juicy slice of heart. Much of that sweetness is due to Jake Lacy, who has done a fine job cultivating a funny everyman persona over the course of his still-new career – first as surrogate Jim on The Office, later in Obvious Child, recently in Girls, and now here in Intramural. This guy is the epitome of amiable, and his low-key charm and stellar comedic timing are consistently pleasing to watch (and, really, just plain nice).
Yet, it’s the rest of Balls Out’s comedic cast that really recommend the film, from Kate McKinnon’s deeply weird but oddly recognizable turn as the idiotic girlfriend, to Nick Kocher’s complete commitment to the gag as the paralyzed Grant, to D.C. Pierson and Jay Pharaoh’s fast-talking and whip-smart take on sports commentary. Beck Bennett’s deranged, screaming, “intimidation staring”-prone Dick is the absolute highlight of the feature, a fresh spin on the sports film baddie whose every line and movement is laced through with determination, grit, and total insanity. As is so often the case with sports film, the real villain is never the yelling douchebag trying to tear down the team and block the ball, it’s whatever internal struggle is going on with the underdog team (they’re the only things stopping them, not things like talent or drive – no, really!), but Bennett sure gives the Panthers a run for their money.
Balls Out is probably destined to become something of a cult classic, thanks to both its charming cast and a series of highly quotable lines, but it’s smart enough and savvy enough that it should score more than a few points with comedy-happy audiences who want to find something funny and new right now (not in four years, after a highly upsetting ball-breaking incident, as is so often the case with these things).
The Upside: The film has got a stacked cast of comedic talent, it unknowingly and amusingly nods to and borrows from more traditional sports films, isn’t afraid to get damn weird in service to a good joke, Beck Bennett yelling a lot.
The Downside: The overall joke can wear a little thin, especially spread out over the course of a feature-length movie, needs still more Beck Bennett yelling a lot.
On the Side: Bennett wasn’t yet a cast member of Saturday Night Live when he signed on for the film – but he was when it was finished, giving director Disney a film that had not two, but three entire SNL cast members. Nice work, Andrew!