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Benchwarmers, The Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Image Why was “The Benchwarmers” released in Blu-Ray? It wasn’t a major hit, and there’s very little about the film which is enhanced by the clarity of detail and richness of colors inherent in the high definition/Blu-Ray process. Is it so we can marvel at the weave of the nylon mesh of David Spade’s baseball catcher duds? So we can see the individual drops of young Sammy Sprinkles’ spittle? This is one of an increasing number of movies whose Blu-Ray availability is beside the point. The clarity of definition neither helps nor hinders the movie, though it could use the help.

For a decreasing number, Dennis Dugan is probably known best as Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, an occasional character on “The Rockford Files” who was granted his own, short-lived TV series. Dugan eventually moved over to directing (though he also appears here as a supporting character), primarily of TV sitcoms and a few movies. He directed Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore” and “Big Daddy,” undoubtedly the reason he landed the directing job on the Sandler-less “The Benchwarmers.”

This is one of those movies that’s best left to fans of this sort of thing; the rest of us will probably find, as I did, that sitting through it is akin to root canal surgery without anesthesia. Everyone looks like they had a grand time making it, and the separate commentary tracks by Dugan and co-stars David Spade and Jon Heder confirm this. But unless you’re devoted to ka ka-pee pee jokes, unless you love fart scenes, blows to the balls, watching Jon Heder pick his nose, and firmly believe that everyone in life is divided into Nerds and Bullies, you should stay far away from “The Benchwarmers.” But if all those things do please you, it’s a movie for you. It’s a mark of something or other than the most normal, ordinary guy in the movie is played by Rob Scheider—and he’s good in the role, too, a stunning surprise it’s not easy to recover from. But it’s as though he’s in a different movie than everyone else; he’s going for natural realism, while costars Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and David Spade are completely farcical characters, never believable—or even to BE believed—for a fraction of a second. Jon Lovitz also turns up, a breath of comic fresh air; he’s so skilled a comic actor that he easily gets laughs from just standing there—even though his character is not written as especially comic.

Gus (Schneider) is pals with Richie (Spade) and Clark (Heder), though just why they’re friends is a little mystifying. When they see a few nerdly little league baseball players rough up and farted at by a team that seems to consist entirely of bullies, they challenge the bad guys to a game—three adult men against a team of children. They win. Squillionaire Mel (Lovitz) offers to bankroll them in a series of summer games, these three against one little league team after another. That’s the plot.

There are lots of decorations on the plot, though. Millionaire Mel collects iconic cars—the Batmobile, KITT, etc.—and his house is full of authentic props and gadgets from movies, mostly the Star War series. He can also afford to hire Reggie Jackson (Reggie Jackson) to coach Gus, Richie and Mel. Mel also has a robot, #7, as a butler, there to provide something else to cut to. Lovitz shows up every now and then, but not often enough.

Richie is a clerk in a video store; he’s a 40-year-old virgin (though not a likeable one like Steve Carrell) who thinks he’s coming on to attractive women customers when he tricks them into renting videos featuring lesbian sex. I don’t understand this at all, but it keeps coming up. I also don’t understand his hairdo, which looks like a cross between that of Ringo Starr and Moe Howard. Spade isn’t as sarcastic as usual, and since as a comic actor, he has damned little else to offer other than clumsiness (which really gets a workout here), he’s more or less an annoying hole in the screen.

Gus, the ordinary guy, has a gorgeous wife, Liz (Molly Sims), who keeps trying unsuccessfully to lure him into bed so she can get pregnant. We eventually learn why Gus is dodging Liz, but again, it doesn’t make much sense. Nor is his avoidance of marital relations funny. It’s just something to cut to when the movie has featured enough baseball scenes for a while. Schneider, as I admit above, is surprisingly good and believable as Gus, even when his actions are puzzling; he gives a real characterization, but in a sense, he might as well not have bothered.

For those who’ve seen “Napoleon Dynamite,” presumably Jon Heder is a welcome sight here, playing a doofus even more socially maladroit than Napoleon. There’s nothing remotely resembling realism in Heder’s performance, nor is there very much comic skill. Movie comedies have come to a sorry pass when the likes of Jon Heder is considered a great comic supporting player.

Everyone else is all over the place, no thanks to director Dugan. Some, like rival coaches (including Dugan himself), are basically realistic, even if they do represent the worldview of everyone being a bully or a nerd. The writers of “The Benchwarmers,” Allen Covert and Nick Swardson, clearly regard nerds with as much contempt as do the movie’s bullies, everything is more than a little confused. Everyone—EVERYONE—other than Gus, Mel and Mel’s kid, is regarded with comic contempt. They also include a puzzling and deeply unfunny role for Swardson himself, Clark’s even weirder brother Howie. Sure the sun is out to get him personally, he lives in a closet, passing out soda bottles of pee to his brother. Howie does finally emerge, of course—all the downtrodden become heroes at last—but he’s never remotely funny.

Part of Mel and Reggie’s training of the three leads is to drive around town smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat. Both commentary tracks admit that this is actually criminal vandalism, but think it’s sure-fire funny anyway. The movie audience is expected to regard farts, vandalism, cruelty (Spader slams a guy in the face with his cleats), humiliation, sadism and haplessness as excruciatingly funny. Well, they CAN be—but they’re not, here.

Blu-Ray still looks great, but there was no reason to apply this process to as dismal a movie as “The Benchwarmers.”

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