It takes a certain set of balls to let Chumbawamba lyrics introduce your film (“Tubthumping,” of course), but Balls Out isn’t just ANY movie. Andrew Disney’s underdog sports comedy is far from conventional, and while it begins like every other “road to athletic redemption” story, a constant mockery of the sports genre rulebook turns this pee-wee effort into a JV superstar. It’s not exactly a Tom-Brady-caliber showstopper, but more a Ryan-Howard-like slugger that belts a home run whenever jokes connect. Just expect some mighty whiffs to accompany those gut-busting dingers. Honestly, though, who cares – chicks dig the long ball, and in that respect, Disney earns plenty of fans.
The story of Balls Out follows a rag-tag intramural football team, the Panthers, and their path to redemption after disbanding during their freshman year. Even though they were crowned league champions, a crippling injury puts Grant (Nick Kocher) in a wheelchair, and best bud Caleb (Jake Lacy) can’t help but feel responsible. Four more years pass without any football, and Caleb finds himself studying for his LSAT test – a benchmark that will dictate the rest of his life. But Caleb begins to dread the mundane boredom of life after college, and as a last-ditch effort at doing something absolutely meaningless, he reassembles the Panthers for one more run at intramural glory.
Disney’s saving grace is a fantastic ability to never take a single scene seriously, which blends together all the stereotypical notes of a sports comeback fantasy with the goofiness of an American Pie comedy (the good ones). It’s a bit more immature and childish than expected, but that juvenile charm is what makes Balls Out such harmless entertainment. Caleb’s exploits are about having a bit of inconsequential fun – for spectators and players alike. Awkward bro bonding, a tournament that doesn’t matter, and sports movie spoofing? That’s a winning combination.
Although, it’s not all beers and laughs. In striving for lackadaisical irreverence, some jokes find themselves lost in some Zuckerian realm of spoof comedy that’s more Scary Movie than Airplane! Granted, it’s no Scary Movie 4, but a few characters find themselves becoming boorishly obnoxious in the name of comedy – particularly Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon. These fresh-faced SNL mainstays bring the most vibrant performances to Balls Out, but push the bounds of comedic buffoonery in doing so. Their roles as a monogamously-obsessed future wife (McKinnon) and a relentless football maniac who has a knack for saying lines that scream homosexual repression (Bennett) are driven by a gradual uptick in insanity, but some psychotic outbursts fall lifelessly flat. Then again, these same outrageous heroics from Bennett and McKinnon also present some of the film’s biggest laughs, so we gladly take the good with the bad.
The most surprising aspect of Bradley Jackson’s screenplay ends up being its rather clever nature, despite lines like the following: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said any boy can piss on the floor, but it takes a real man to crap on the ceiling.” Yes, it’s a metaphor, but for what, we’ll never know.
These are the tidbits of knowledge that Nick Kocher yells out as his paralyzed coach figure, who plays like Dodgeball‘s Patches O’Houlihan after a testosterone upgrade. Under Kocher’s guidance, all the sports clichés fall into place, and a eclectic group of personalities band together while facing insurmountable odds – nothing a training montage can’t fix! EVERY cliché is mocked, from emotional reflections set against a serene natural backdrop, to a pair of stoner announcers who share far too much information (hilariously played by Jay Pharoah and D.C. Pierson). Disney’s rigid adherence to underdog plotting ensures that sports buffs will be laughing their way to victory.
Balls Out is an uneven watch, and the laughs aren’t always cleanly scored, but who doesn’t like a good underdog story? It’s the kind of movie that’s able to reference a 2,000 cup beer pong game that claimed the lives of seven bros with a straight face, and then bring us back to our own college lives, hitting on our nostalgic fears of an unknown future. Caleb keeps believing that his life should be completely structured, but with the help of his asshole roommate, a flamboyant street magician, and an opera-singing cowboy, he learns that uncertainty can be a good thing. Life is all about enjoying the right moments, and going “balls out” every once and a while. There isn’t a perfect play for every situation – sometimes you’ve just got to wing it!
Also, always check abandon roller rinks for violent, Thunderdome-like bums. Remember that one for your dating playbook, kids.
In a world where spoof films have been getting an increasingly bad name, Balls Out is surprisingly one of the smarter sports movie commentaries in the last few years.