Movie stardom might be defined as the ability to play someone who’s too good to be true and make that person seem just typical enough to be you. James Van Der Beek has that skill down as if born to it in the slickly enjoyable ”Varsity Blues.” It’s a conventionally plotted sports melodrama, with some flashy gridiron showdowns, most of them scored to jackhammer alterna-metal (yes, this is an MTV Production), as well as some winky bits of adolescent sex play. But the movie is also brisk and wholehearted and smarter than you expect, and it gives Van Der Beek, who each week declares his mastery of pop trivia sensitively as the lead romantic moper of Dawson’s Creek, a chance to break out of his soft shell and show some sinew and swagger.
I’m not making predictions, but I couldn’t help but think back to another formulaic yet likable high school football movie — ”All the Right Moves,” the 1983 sleeper in which Tom Cruise proved he could do more than boogie in his BVDs. Cruise made his shoulder-pad stud vulnerable and life-size, a true guy, and Van Der Beek does the same thing here. He gets you to believe in a character as idealized as Jonathan Moxon, a.k.a. Mox, a young Texas quarterback who can toss a football through the eye of a needle at 40 yards, yet who’s so noble and multifaceted that he sits on the bench during games, stealing glances at a volume of Kurt Vonnegut hidden in his playbook.
Mox’s lofty attitude doesn’t win him any favors with the coach, Bud Kil-mer (Jon Voight), a drawling search-and-destroy brutalizer who treats his players as if they were in permanent boot camp. Kilmer, a control freak, breeds victory through obedience, and that’s why he keeps the freethinking Mox on the bench. But the kid gets a break when the first-string quarterback is sidelined by an injury. The student fans are fickle — they want a winner, period — and the moment Mox completes a crucial pass, he’s the new star, the school’s hallowed pigskin savior.
Stardom, of course, means perks. At a convenience store, the clerk offers Mox a six-pack, and the injured quarterback’s scrumptious groupie-in-heat girlfriend tries to seduce him by putting on her whipped-cream bikini. ”Varsity Blues” has its shallow gags and cliché characters, but it also creates a vivid portrait of a small-town community in the grip of an obsession. These boys’ fathers played for Kil-mer too, and they’ve never relinquished their lust for glory. There’s something at once touching and fanatical in the way they’re now living through their sons.
The emotional hook of ”Varsity Blues” is the way it presents Mox caught between his own sane vision of athletic elation and the revved-up dreams of victory his new status as a hero forces him to confront. Mox doesn’t reject stardom; he grooves on it (who wouldn’t?). He’s tempted as hell by his new role as high school demigod, but he knows in his gut it’s rooted in a corrupt fixation on winning at the expense of everything else.
The director, Brian Robbins, has a knack for staging inspirational moments at low ebb, and he brings out the best in his actors. Paul Walker, as the sidelined quarterback (a victim of the coach’s shoot-’em-up-with-painkillers exploitation methods), gets at the essence of every teenage jock who suddenly realizes he’s been living a fantasy, and Ron Lester, as the grossly overweight blocker Billy Bob, actually does something with his cartoon role; he gives it undercurrents of self-loathing and silent honor. When Mox finally faces down the die-hard coach, the ideal he’s fighting for isn’t original; in essence, he’s saying “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” But Varsity Blues movingly taps an up-to-the-minute American mood by offering this earthly view of sports as the truest form of heroism. Playing the game, the film says, is all that you can do. You should consider yourself damned lucky just to be on the field.