Thursday, 12 July 2012

Balls Out: The Gary Houseman Story (2008)

Dir. Danny Leiner
Starring: Seann William Scott, Randy Quaid, Brando Eastman, Emilee Wallace 

In 2000 Danny Leiner directed Seann William Scott in low-concept comedy Dude, Where’s My Car? Contrary to all expectations it did really well. It was actually very funny. Whoooah! 

Eight years later and he is again directing Seann William Scott. And completely fails to get the same magic. Duuuude! 

The title itself reflects the schizophrenia at the heart of the movie. Balls Out – it suggests ribald sports fun. An adult version of Dodgeball maybe. The Gary Houseman Story suggests a biopic of a sportsman. Should you know who Gary Houseman is?

Well no. Gary (Scott) is a fictitious former tennis player; the nearest he got to the big time was playing a semi-pro tour of Mexico (until allegations of cheating and an unfortunate incident with a donkey in a titty bar got him thrown off). He busks his way as far as Nebraska and then decides to stop. He takes a job as a school janitor and decides to put his tennis playing days behind him. We know all this because he spends the first five minutes of the film telling us that he will never again pick up a tennis racket. By minute six he has picked up a tennis racket and is duelling a wall. He then spends the next minute explaining that he is now through with tennis, and nothing can ever induce him to return to the sport. By minute eight he has signed on as assistant tennis coach at the school where he works. 

Thereafter it is the usual sporting schmaltz of a new coach using unconventional techniques to motivate his underperforming team to championship glory. It’s like Best Shot but with more beef jerky and vomiting. There are some moments of what I think tries to be drama along the way. Gary clearly looks to Coach Lew Tuttle (Randy Quaid, last seen in Hard Rain) as a replacement father, his own having been dismissive. The same narrative applies to star player Mike (Brando Eastman), whose own father is less than impressed with his son’s choice of playing tennis. But when Lew dies Gary resolves to lead his team to victory in his name. He constantly exhorts them to greater efforts in the name of “Coach T”, takes over his three Doberman pinschers, has bizarre hallucinations in which Tuttle appears to him as an owl or an Indian squaw, and he kisses the coach’s school-age daughter Jenny (Emilee Wallace). Okay – she kisses him, and then he kisses her back and stops it (mainly because he is more interested in getting his “naughty fingers” on Argentinian Spanish teacher Miss Sanchez (Leonor Varela). He also has a momentary crisis of morality when he considers shaving the racquet strings of the opposing team’s star player. 

The thing is, for a comedy it is not very funny. I think I laughed three times during the whole 90 minutes. Twice when eight-year-old Amy (Ryan Simpkins) used incredibly bad language, and once when Coach Pimble (A. D. Miles) gets knocked over by dogs. That’s the level of humour we are dealing with here. But three laughs in 90 minutes is a very poor hit rate. Other elements are meant  to be funny, but just come out disgusting. American Pie  was a gross-out comedy, because for all the gross moments (jizz-filled beer, explosive diarrhoea, pie-shagging) there actually was some comedy; Balls Out manages the gross but fails on the comedy. For example, the motivational tools Gary employs range from the ridiculous (vomiting on the team’s history book) to the ridiculous (running out onto the pitch bare-assed), and from the ridiculous (crapping on the opposing team’s court) to the ridiculous (hiring a whore for Mike so that he will be “a Man” when it comes to the big game). Your enjoyment will depend entirely upon how hilarious you find Seann William Scott’s backside.

What's the polite thing to do in these circumstances?
Focus on his ass or on his balls?

What have I learnt about Nebraska?
There is no particular rhyme or reason as to why the film is set in Nebraska, other than the fact that writers Andy Stock and Rick Stempson both attended Lincoln East High School. Nebraskan (or “husker”) schools and their parents care about American football to the exception of all else. Tennis is a very poor relation; at one point the parents suggest disbanding the tennis squad and reallocating its resources to the American football team. Mind you, I’m sure this would be the same in most places. Tennis is not really that enthralling.  

There is a degree of heterogeneity in Lincoln at least. The squad includes a kid of Chinese descent, there is an Argentinian teacher at the school, and they can attract a Filipino ping-pong champ as an exchange student. 

Can we go there?
It is starting to look as though a genuine film shoot in Nebraska is a rare occurrence indeed. Okay, so About Schmidt  was shot up there, but Balls Out – like Boys Don’t Cry – was filmed in Texas. Filming took place around Austin, Taylor and the delightfully named Dripping Springs. The school portrayed is meant to be located in Lincoln – possibly even Lincoln East High School, which the two writers attended. 

Overall Rating: 1/5

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