The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 01, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Invincible

Full review behind the jump


: Ericson Core
: Brad Gann
: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Ken Mok
: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Conway, Michael Rispoli, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Sal Darigo

The admiration I have for
Invincible is the kind you have for a tightly-produced pop tune, or one of those fake double cheeseburgers that look so impossibly plump and juicy in commercials. It’s a factory job, Walt Disney Pictures providing you attractive movie stars, an energetic soundtrack without a single song you’ve never heard before, and an inspiring true-life story hammered just so into a vehicle for general uplift.

To say it is formulaic is to miss the forest for the forest. The intent is not to surprise nor reinvent. The intent is to go with what’s been known to work. And the reason it’s been known to work is: if you do it professionally, without pretension, then slick as it is, clichéd as it is, it will, kind of sort of, work. And people will leave the theatre feeling good, which is what they paid you to give them.

is an effective enough example of that premise, and an unchallenging way to spend a couple of hours. I wouldn’t call that damning with faint praise, it’s more the acknowledgement of middling expectations achieved.

The story concerns not one NFL rookie, but two. The first is Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old bartender and substitute teacher scratching out a living in the blue collar, heavily-Italian neighborhoods of Philadelphia immortalized in Rocky. Their jogging routes may even intersect. When the Philadelphia Eagles, lying hopelessly at the bottom of the league’s barrel, take the unusual step of holding open tryouts in the community, Papale answers the call.

The other rookie is the coach who proposes this fantasy to begin with. He’s Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), hot off a Bowl victory in the college coaching ranks and far younger than the father/mentor figures usually stalking the sidelines. Football fans know Vermeil’s pro football C.V. well – he would eventually win a Super Bowl coaching for St. Louis in 1999 – but Kinnear’s subtly-excellent mimicry of the famously emotional signal-caller gives us a peek at where it all began, when he thought he might not still have a job a month hence.

Papale is accustomed to failure. His friends are accustomed to failure; his father (Kevin Conway), too. This is beyond the reality of life being hard for The Common Man, this is a pessimism so soaked into their bones you begin to feel they’ve lost the energy for even pursuing happiness, much less knowing what to do with it if they find it. In spite of the way he runs circles around everyone at their pickup football games, Papale is reluctant to go to the tryout. After all, his wife just left him, and scrawled a note pointing out that he’s never going anywhere in life just to rub the point in.

Of course the momentum of such granite-etched story arcs as these is so irresistible that one might even grow impatient with our heroes on screen. We know Papale is going to go and try out. We know he’s going to shine in the tryout and survive training camp, even though he keeps waiting in his little dorm room for the assistant coach to come knocking with that fatal phrase – “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.”. And of course we know that foxy and feisty new bartender (Elizabeth Banks) will say yes if he can ever summon up the confidence to make a move. It is because we, as audience members, are trained to understand How It’s Supposed to Go.

However the filmmakers might round off the edges of the story and blur certain complicated details, it is not without very self-aware calculation. These are not panderers flailing their way towards the lowest common denominator, they are panderers determined not to insult the viewers who ultimately employ them. The space between those points is what graduates Invincible from the derogatory “waste of time” to the seemingly more benign “diversion”.

Wahlberg keeps his gaze steady and doesn’t overplay, he has enough savvy as a movie star to trust that his fellows will paint the inspiration around him. As a well-muscled guy who always looks just a little bit shorter than the people around him, whose instinctive stance is as a guy with something to prove, he’s the right actor for the role. Veteran cinematographer Ericson Core fulfills those duties as well as making his feature directing debut, as you might predict the movie is bright and interesting to look at but without a marksman’s aim for genuine emotion.

Football fans will appreciate the immersion in the world of equipment lockers and camp drills, as well as an enthusiast’s familiarity with the personality types you’ll find. When one player calmly explains “I’m the center. I hate everybody.”, there’s authenticity there. This is, of course, a double-edged sword, as it is the hardcore football fan who will recognize that Papale’s roster position as a special teams hitter is drastically inflated in importance here, and that the league rules would make what seems to happen on the climactic play impossible.

This returns us to our original point, that the goal is not to out-pick the nitpickiest. It is accurate enough for the casual fan, enlivening enough for the casual moviegoer, manly enough for the casual Mark Wahlberg fan, clean enough for the casual whole family. Invincible is a movie that wants to study just hard enough to get a “B”. If I were handing out grades, I don’t think that would be unfair.


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