Hey all! I recently joined a couple of my old film critic buddies, Hope Madden and George Wolf, for an episode of their horror movie podcast, Fright Club. We discussed a handful of the best college-set horror movies from over the years, and I talked about some of my work on the Ivy On Celluloid series about depictions of higher education on film. The episode is up today, and I highly recommend checking it out!
About five years ago, I covered the 1994 theatrical cut of Tammy and the T-Rex here on the blog. In that iteration, the film is an absurd, goofy film about the mind of a teenage boy becoming trapped inside of a robotic dinosaur. At the time, I reported that the film had an alternate cut, that featured gratuitous gore and a much less family-friendly tone:
Apparently, there is alternate cut of Tammy and the T-Rex that was released in Italy, which features enough violence and gore that it would have received an R-rating from the MPAA. In total, this cut is less than 10 minutes longer, but has never been released in English.
Last year, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome got a hold of this Italian-released gore cut, and restored this strange movie into its much stranger, gorier form. After touring with the restoration for a time, it was recently released on blu-ray, which gave me the chance to check it out.
Despite the fact that little run-time is added to the movie, the restored sequences are cartoonishly over the top with their violence, and the overall experience is that much more fun for it. The satisfaction of watching people get flattened and eviscerated by a robot dinosaur is unparalleled. This iteration really puts John Carl Buechler’s delightful vintage b-movie effects work on display, which is never a bad thing. Tammy and the T-Rex was a solid recommendation before this gore restoration, now it is mandatory viewing for bad movie fans. Seriously, make this a priority.
Shortly after I published my aggregated measure of the Worst Movies of 2019, the review embargo on Cats lifted, and one of the biggest cinematic disasters of recent memory hit theaters. Tens of millions of dollars seemingly evaporated, there was a high-profile attempt by the studio to “patch” the effects within a week of the film’s release, film critics collectively lost their minds trying to one-up each other with surrealist, rambling reviews, and theater chains like Alamo Drafthouse hosted packed “rowdy” screenings of the film in the wake of a countless wave of memes about folks going to screenings while intoxicated with a variety of substances. It was a bad movie touchstone event. A quasi-phenomenon of trash cinema.
I saw Cats a couple of times over the course of this frenzy. The first time, I tried to focus on positive elements of the film, hoping to add something novel to the discourse, a la FilmJoy’s delightful Deep Dive series. It was…somewhat difficult. I can’t justify why I went the second time, but I don’t regret it.
I could go through the same points that every reviewer has already thoroughly blunted – the off-putting human hands, the curious choice to have cats wear fur coats, the inconsistent size scales, the inexplicable eroticism, etc. However, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for writing about that.
In the past, I hosted a podcast here at Misan[trope]y called The Plotopsy Podcast, where I tried to dissect the issues that contributed to a film’s critical or financial failure. While I haven’t gone back to it in a while, this is a question that always interests me. In the case of Cats, I have some suspicions as to what went wrong.
Ashley Lee of the Los Angeles Times put some of the blame of the Cats failure on the inherent difficulties of adapting concept musicals to the big screen, which I think does carry some water. However, as she points out, concept musicals like Chicago and Cabaret have worked on the screen in the past. More on target is her observation that much of the spectacle and awe of the stage version of Cats is lost in the film adaptation amidst ill-conceived digital fur, exposed human hands, and litany of what Justin Chang referred to as “grotesque design choices.”
Let’s start with one of the few positives of the film – I genuinely think the choreography is quite good. This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but my lay opinion is that there was some great effort on the part of the performers and choreographers to put a good performance on. For instance, I think the Skimbleshanks sequence may be the only roundly “okay” part of the movie, thanks entirely to those two parties. However, throughout the movie, that effort is lost in the trappings of digital fur. On my second watch through the movie, I tried to pay more attention to the dancing, particularly in the background. The digital gilding of fur on the actors has an odd muting effect on their motions – they come off as intangible in their glossy fluidity. One of the charms of dance performances is the raw humanity of it – the contortions of muscles and tactile physicality is an integral part of the spectacle. With the stage version of Cats, this isn’t lost beneath practical effects. Under a digital shroud, the effect is all but completely evaporated.
Let’s discuss the effects a bit more – I think this, more so than anything else, has been the greatest point of criticism leveled at the film. The “uncanny valley” effect that comes from sub-par simulacrums of human expressions and movement is on full display, to haunting and disconcerting effect. However, it is hard to anticipate the quality of effects used to this extent. There’s simply no way anyone on set could have predicted exactly what the movie would ultimately look like – the process of adding digital effects after filming is almost like making a second movie on its own.
The best, if only, ways to estimate the quality of effects is their cost, the time allotted to create them, and the reputation of the houses hired to provide them. We know the money was spent for a quality product, but who actually provided them? The two groups that provided most of the work on Cats were Moving Picture Company and The Mill. MPC just won an Academy Award for visual effects on 1917, and has contributed work to films like Life of Pi, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, The Jungle Book, and Blade Runner 2049, all of which garnered positive receptions for their effects. The Mill has plenty of credits as well, if a bit less lauded, including television shows like Doctor Who, Vikings, and True Detective, as well as an assortment of films. Basically, these are teams that know how to do effects work.
But were they given the time to get the job done? Visual effects is work that is difficult to rush – throwing money at it doesn’t necessarily mean it will go any faster or smoother. Reportedly, the Cats effects were rushed from the start for the ambitious release date, and ‘completed’ only within days of the premiere. What’s more, tinkering was demanded after the disastrous response to the film’s trailer online, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The effects were supposed to be ground-breaking, and a marketing gimmick to rival the awe-inspiring practical effects on stage. I suspect the producers were anticipating that, at least. Even if they weren’t Avatar quality, the producers almost certainly expected them to be good enough to use as a tactic to bring people into the theater, just like the stage play. Unfortunately, I don’t think they grasped the scope, or had realistic expectations. Maybe with more money and more time, this could have been the spectacle they were hoping for, but that is highly speculative. If I were to guess, there were plenty of tense conversation between the producers and the effects houses about the projected release date, and what could realistically be expected. And we got what we got.
With that, I want to shift to marketing. I believe that the disaster of Cats can’t be understood without a look at the way the marketing was planned, and integrated into the film’s production. Aside from using the effects as a marketing gimmick, I suspect that much of the casting was done with an explicit eye to marketing – roles were almost certainly cast with a handful of qualities in mind. They needed performers with followings and platforms, who could usher their flocks into the theater. A baked-in audience of loyal fans is essentially guaranteed ticket sales, right? I suspect folks like Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason DeRulo, and Idris Elba were brought in with this explicit thinking in mind. Swift was even a double-dip, as she also contributed an original song to the movie, which I’m sure the producers expected to be an easy award nod. On the other end of the spectrum, in order to cast the broadest net into the general population, Cats brought stage credibility in the forms of lauded individuals like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Francesca Hayward. The theater and performance aficionados would surely be pleased. To add to it, Tom Hooper has had success adapting a stage hit to the big screen – folks were inexplicably fond of his take on Les Miserables, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Surely this will bring public confidence to the project.
It is important to note, particularly for folks who don’t remember, that Cats was a phenomenon on the stage, and primarily a marketing phenomenon at that. So, these pandering tactics for the film iteration shouldn’t be a surprise. Overall, critics were not fond of the material from the start, long before they salivated over new and inventive ways to eviscerate the film adaptation. However, it was a marketer’s dream and a persistent crowd-pleaser. It was inoffensive, nonviolent, gimmicky, devoid of intellectual depth or an ethical challenge to an audience, family-friendly to the bone, and bolstered by an iconic logo that infected the globe. The whole affair was allegedly cute by means of its loose association with real-life cats, a perennial delight for the masses. Cats is, on paper, a rare property with near-universal potential for attracting the widest possible audience. For producers who might be a bit out-of-touch with the zeitgeist, they probably saw a film adaptation of this material to be an inherent winner in concept. After all, cats are as big as ever on the internet. Kids love cats, old people love cats…every major demographic seems to love cats. And Cats was a huge hit on the stage! This is a sure win, they must have thought.
I suspect that the producers anticipated that their casting machinations would coalesce with residual loyalty to the stage play to attract both young folks and aging audiences alike. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they saw the success of Hamilton as indicating a re-invigorated enthusiasm for stage musicals, without even a basic understanding of why folks enjoyed Hamilton. Much like Cats, there was a lack of depth or insight behind their grand aspirations.
A lot has been said of the decision to release Cats opposite to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Of course, I think the release date should have been buried in January or later, but more for the benefit of the effects than to avoid Star Wars competition. To be honest, I don’t think they ever thought that Cats would be competing with Star Wars – the producers were almost certainly focused on the potential of the Christmas-time date and historical musical successes in the slot, as reported by SlashFilm back in 2018:
The holiday season is…big on musical movies – Les Miserables, another musical adaptation from Tom Hooper, opened on December 25, 2012. The adaptation of Chicago hit theaters December 27, 2002. And last year, The Greatest Showman danced onto the screen on December 20.
Even though there was a wide net cast for Cats to general audiences, I’m sure Universal saw it as counter-programming to Star Wars, likely to catch audiences who weren’t on board with the hyperspace franchise train – the sluggish response to Solo might have given Universal some confidence going up against the Disney titan as well, but I’m not sure how much that played into the decision. The way that Universal held tight to the release date despite the effects issues says to me that they were focused on the specific potential of holiday date revenues.
So, what went wrong with Cats? Blaming the effects alone doesn’t get to the source of the rot, and I believe it places too much blame on effects workers who were forced into a tough position. This is a film that was flawed from conception. It was, in my opinion, meticulously concocted as a marketing scheme rather than an artistic enterprise. That in-authenticity seeps from its pores, and the stench carries. There was also certainly a false foundation to its construction – it turns out that there isn’t the residual fondness for the Cats brand that was relied upon, nor were the marketing powers of celebrities enough to sucker in audiences.
Cats is what it is. In truth, it is a bereft and shallow product of a bereft and shallow enterprise. Cats is capitalism put through a prism of digital fur. If anything, its appropriation into the bad movie canon is the only way it could have found a form of salvation. We have taken a wretched thing, placed it in a hot air balloon, and let it fly into oblivion, where it always should have remained.
Yesterday, I had the chance to catch Come To Daddy, the feature directorial debut of Ant Timpson, who is best known for producing modern cult favorites like Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, The Greasy Strangler, and The ABCs of Death. With a screenplay by The Greasy Strangler co-writer Toby Harvard, it is a fascinatingly tense and gore-laden affair.
The film opens with Elijah Wood’s meek character, Norval, arriving at a secluded beach house that he describes as “like a UFO from the 1950s,” which is the home of his estranged and enigmatic father. From the moment he arrives, he has a series of baffling, tense, and inexplicably combative conversations (and non-verbal interactions) with his host – an intermittently aggressive and eccentric drunkard played enthrallingly by Stephen McHattie.
These early scenes between McHattie and Wood reminded me of a notable early sequence in Kevin Smith’s 2014 body-horror film Tusk, which featured the late Michael Parks and Justin Long in a peculiar verbal sparring match juxtaposed with the warm surroundings of a cozy, fire-lit living room. Instead of having the dancing shadows of a fire-lit room surround them, McHattie and Wood have their verbal duels with a scenic coastal vista in ever-present view from their modern, saucer-like abode. For fans of cerebral indie-horror, the first half of Come to Daddy is likely to please – there is palpable drama, a deep sense of unease, and some salient themes of family, mental illness, and alcoholism underscoring their interactions. However, viewers are assured that “you have no fucking idea what is happening here” – twists and turns are abound, paving the way for a stylistic and tonal shift into a violent, shocking, and depraved realm.
Unlike Tusk, which is burdened by both pacing and performance issues, both the screenplay and the acting performances in Come to Daddy are impeccable. Beyond Wood and McHattie, who are both fantastic, all of accessory cast members feel tangible and real – there is a conveyed sense that they all have entire lives and stories of their own off-screen. Even a character with a single, brief scene is unforgettable for his ruminating on the sinister nature of “raisin eyes.” When performances and the screenplay click together in just the right way, this is the result.
While I understand folks who feel much more affection for the first half of Come To Daddy, I still thoroughly enjoyed its abrupt yet fluid shift into a higher gear. The tension that was built in the first half never dissipates, but adapts to the more violent, faster pace of the developing action.
On the whole, I found this to be enjoyable horror/thriller flick with some expertly tense sequences. While I don’t think of it as among the highest tier of contemporary horror with the likes of features from Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, or Robert Eggers, I think it fits into a nice niche as an oddball movie with wry humor and tense dialogue. While this isn’t a movie that is going to light up an awards show, it is going to scratch a unique itch for a lot of horror film aficionados who appreciate a different, artistic twist on their gore-fest without losing the charming ethos of a b-movie.
Howdy loyal followers and wandering spambots! After a hiatus induced by PhD work, I’m back with my annual analysis of the worst films of the year.
As with previous years, I want to emphasize that this is a measure of public opinion – I’m not assessing any kind of objective quality, but rather gauging the public perception of which movies were the worst of the year. I measure this by compiling published year-end “Worst of 2019” lists (from sources like The AV Club and Variety), then I tally up how often each film appears on these lists. It makes for a simple frequency distribution to visualize how widely despised these various 2019 films were. If you would like to see my tallies, they are available here.
2019 saw a wider distribution of films receiving tallies than previous years – a total of 127 from 16 published lists. In 2018, for comparison, only 103 films received tallies, which was more than either 2017 or 2016.
As with previous years, there was no universal consensus for the worst film of the year. The leader of the pack was only included in 14 of 16 year-end lists, meaning 2 lists omitted it entirely. However, the is the strongest win for any movie I have covered since I started doing this annual post. There were plenty of ties within the rankings, though one film did stand above (below?) the others, unlike last year’s first-place tie. Without further delay, here are the rankings.
(Tie) The Kitchen / Dark Phoenix
(Tie) The Fanatic / MIB: International / Gemini Man
(Tie) Rambo: Last Blood / Hellboy
(Tie) A Madea Family Funeral / The Goldfinch / Replicas / Shaft / UglyDolls
Are there any movies that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Were any of these movies better than the public judged them to be? Let me know!
In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’ll be taking a look at National Lampoon’s second most famous college-set comedy: 2002’s Van WIlder.
The plot of Van Wilder is summarized on IMDb as follows:
The most popular kid on campus meets a beautiful journalist who makes him realize that maybe he’s afraid to graduate.
Van Wilder was the directorial feature debut for Walt Becker, who has gone on to direct other comedies like Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. The screenplay was written by the duo of David Wagner and Brent Goldberg, who also penned the screenplays for The Girl Next Door and Underclassman.
The cast of the film is headlined by the charismatic Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Green Lantern, Detective Pikachu), along with Tara Reid (Sharknado, The Big Lebowski, Alone in the Dark), Kal Penn (House), Tim Matheson (The West Wing, Animal House), Emily Rutherfurd (Pain & Gain), Paul Gleason (Die Hard, The Breakfast Club), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad).
The inspiration for Van Wilder is rooted in the experiences of the comedian Bert Kreischer during his time at Florida State University, during which time he was named the “top partyer at the Number One Party School in the country” in a 1997 Rolling Stone feature. The article features a number of less-than-flattering testimonials and descriptions of Bert’s lurid behavior, and concludes that his reputation on campus over six years has made him “a figure of vaguely totemic proportions.”
Van Wilder was made on a production budget of $5 million, on which it took in a lifetime gross of just over $38 million, making it quite profitable. Ultimately, its success spawned two sequels: Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, and Van Wilder: Freshman Year.
However, as with many comedies, the reception to Van Wilder was split between critics and audiences. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 19% from critics and 73% from audiences
To begin the higher education analysis of Van Wilder, I’d like to start with the host institution for the story: Coolidge College. This institution, as is often the case with higher ed films, is entirely fictitious. However, two real institutions served as filming locations – the University of California – Los Angeles and California State University – Northridge. UCLA was the filming location for most of the campus sequences, whereas Cal State Northridge provided the gym for the basketball scene.
A handful of times throughout the film, Van refers to his major as “Leisure Studies.” This is an actual major offered at many institutions, including California State University – Long Beach, University of Mount Olive, and Southern Connecticut State University. From what I can tell, these programs typically prepare students for careers in sports management, the management of recreation centers, recreation therapy, general event management, and tourism. This notably fits Van’s displayed skill set of planning and executing large-scale events, such as athletic-based fundraisers and intricate parties.
Tara Reid’s character in the film writes for Coolidge College’s student newspaper, and takes the position very seriously – it is stated that a reporter previously in her position went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, which she aspires to herself. She and her editor hope that an expose on Van Wilder will attract critical attention to the newspaper.
I decided to look into the world of college journalism, and there are a number of annual awards for exceptional individual stories, reporters, and papers. In particular, he Associated Collegiate Press has annual awards for exceptional cartoonists, reporters, individual stories, designers, and photographers who contributed their works to college newspapers, as well as Pacemaker Awards for overall outstanding work for college publications – magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, and online news outlets. Looking through the most recent ACP award winners for individual stories, most of them are on serious social topics – food insecurity, sexual assault on campus, student mental health, the opioid epidemic, institutional corruption, and misconduct among administrators and faculty. I’m not so sure that an expose on a local party animal would yield much critical attention, going by the stories that are most lauded.
A recurring gag throughout the film revolves around a specific reserved campus parking spot for a faculty member. In my time spent on a number of different college campuses, I’ve never once seen a parking spot reserved for a specific faculty member – typically, they have a similar permit to students and staff. For instance, here is information on faculty parking from a handful of universities, which all require paid permits for zoned parking – University of Tennessee – Knoxville, University of Houston, and University of Arkansas. From what I can tell, these paid permits are pretty much the ubiquitous policy for faculty members at universities.
During the sequence where Van Wilder’s father financially cuts him off, he claims that taking seven years to complete undergraduate coursework is unacceptable:
“Seven years and no degree, you should have graduated twice by now…if you don’t have your doctorate you haven’t done enough”
Clearly, Van’s father had high expectations – he anticipated Van graduating early, not hanging around on campus for the majority of a decade. However, his thinking is indicative of a pretty significant misconception about how long it takes many students to complete coursework at four-year institutions. Institutions like the National Center for Education Statistics and National Student Clearinghouse Research Center track four-year college graduation rates primarily at the six-year mark – and those numbers aren’t perfect, regardless of institution type. Assuming Coolidge College is a four-year, private non-profit college, it is likely that (according to 2016 data) 1 in 4 enrolled students at the college won’t complete their degree in six years – Van isn’t in as much of a minority as one might assume.
One of the key supporting characters in the film is Taj – an international student at Coolidge College who appears to have not adapted well to the American college experience, particularly in regards to his initial expectations of sexual activity, issues with his personal anxiety, and general loneliness. I decided to dig around for some information on international student experiences, to see if Taj’s depiction is consistent.
For LGBT international students coming to the United States from cultures where exploration of one’s sexuality or gender identity is discouraged or unsafe, this opportunity to develop and explore in a supportive environment can be revolutionary.
From what we know of Taj, this is the basis of his decision to come to college in the United States. Though he is not shown to be LGBT, his primary motivator is certainly the “exploration of…sexuality.” What is particularly interesting about this, however, is that American colleges have a uniquely sexual reputation in his mind, to the point that it influenced his enrollment decision. As far as I know, there isn’t any data on sexual activity that can be compared between universities globally to prove his assumptions correct or incorrect, but there is some data about sexual activity and colleges in the United States. While this doesn’t confirm or debunk Taj’s sexual assumptions about American colleges, it is interesting data that could be construed as support for the view of these institutions as sexual exploration centers. That said, I would wager that Taj’s view of the college experience is the result of media portrayals more than anything else – the proliferation of raunchy sexual comedies like Animal House or Van Wilder, for instance.
During the pep talk at the Coolidge College basketball game, one of the players asks Van if the victory party will feature students (“freaky honeys”) from Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke College is a real, notable women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
At one point in the film, Taj catalyzes a dormitory fire through a mishap with romance-inducing candles. It is pretty much common knowledge that candles are not allowed in dormitories for this very reason, which has inspired numerous on alternatives. Despite this, candles are still a frequent cause of fires in dorms – in just the past year, fires at Boston University, Bowdoin College, and Colby College have been attributed to errant candles use. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 87% of reported dormitory fires have explicitly involved cooking equipment, but candles are also cited as a leading cause of accidental fires in dorms.
One of the most curious sequence of events in the film involves Van Wilder’s student records. In one scene, Tara Reid’s character is handed all of Van’s disciplinary records by a university official without so much as showing identification. However, when she later goes looking for Van’s official transcript, another administrator stonewalls her, saying that divulging that information would be illegal. Ultimately, Reid’s character steals Van’s record after setting off a fire alarm. These sequences touch on the details of FERPA – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – which is a federal law that was passed in 1974, and applies to any education institution that receives federal funds. FERPA specifically relates to student records and privacy, and makes it clear that student disciplinary records are protected information that require the student’s consent to release, except in very specific cases:
A postsecondary institution may disclose to an alleged victim of any crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense the final results of a disciplinary proceeding conducted by the institution against the alleged perpetrator of that crime, regardless of whether the institution concluded a violation was committed. An institution may disclose to anyone—not just the victim—the final results of a disciplinary proceeding, if it determines that the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense, and with respect to the allegation made against him or her, the student has committed a violation of the institution’s rules or policies.
Based on these limited exceptions, it is fair to say that Tara Reid’s character should not have been given Van’s disciplinary records, and that the administrator committed a FERPA violation by doing so. However, FERPA violations are not as uncommon as you might assume: universities are in a constant struggle with administrators and professors in an attempt to keep everyone within FERPA guidelines with their communications. FERPA trainings are commonplace on college campuses, and other resources include tutorials, walkthroughs, and FAQs for staff and faculty members at universities. This is because, particularly thanks to modern technology, the scope of what is a FERPA violation is broader than you might first assume – even emailing a graded paper directly to a student is a FERPA violation, as email is not considered a secure medium for transmitting protected information. Even the fact that Reid’s character was able to steal Van’s physical records means that they were not sufficiently secured, which is another violation – typically education records are encrypted and stored electronically for this very reason (though digital vulnerabilities also exist).
As part of the ruling of the disciplinary committee, Van is required to complete his degree and graduate, “auditing” the final classes he needs to graduate. This phrasing is particularly peculiar – a class audit is specifically taking a course without receiving a grade or credit, which means it would not contribute towards the achievement of a degree. This mechanism – in which a student blows through a bunch of classes in a montage at the last minute, as a sort of gauntlet challenge – seems to pop up in other education-based movies pretty often, but as far as I can gather, it isn’t based on anything factual.
When Van Wilder first faces financial hardship following being cut off by his father, he initially earns his tuition money by pioneering a service called “topless tutors,” in which he convinced employees of a local strip joint to act as tutors with a risque incentive system. Ultimately, this service is put to an abrupt end, but it tangentially hits at a very real issue: college students turning to sex work to cover costs. While Van’s situation is not the way student sex work is usually envisioned, what Van did could fall technically under the terminology of sex work, as he is shown to be managing the logistics of the program.
In general, I think that Van Wilder is a shockingly heinous movie – it constantly trivializes serious issues like suicide and rape, expresses contemptuous misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, and seems to relish in it all as a collective badge of honor. As a portrayal of higher education, it does touch on a handful of interesting topics, but almost always by complete accident as it shambles through stereotype-laden dialogue and caricatures with crass disregard. For the most part, the movie is a dated, nearly-unwatchable atrocity of a film with little overall value. It does speak to Reynolds’s charisma that he has gone on to the career that he has now, and was able to squeeze an ounce of charm from this desolate, hateful stone of a movie. It goes without saying that this is yet another college movie that I don’t recommend revisiting – it might be the most odious of the bunch I’ve covered so far.
Today, in my continuing series about portrayals of higher education on film, I’m taking a look at the Miley Cyrus vehicle So Undercover.
The plot of So Undercover is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A tough, street-smart private eye is hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.
So Undercover was directed by Tom Vaughan, who has primarily worked on television shows like Big Love, The Royals, Victoria, and Press. The screenplay was provided by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty, The Switch, Here Comes The Boom) and producer Steven Pearl (New Amsterdam).
The cast of the film is headlined by pop star Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, Black Mirror) and Jeremy Piven (Entourage, Smokin’ Aces, PCU, Car 54 Where Are You?), with supporting roles filled in by Mike O’Malley (Glee, Justified, My Name is Earl), Eloise Mumford (Fifty Shades of Grey), and Megan Park (Diary of the Dead).
So Undercover went through some hiccups in regards to distribution – after a number of delays and rights exchanges, it never ultimately made it to theaters in the United States, though it did in a handful of international markets. For domestic audiences, the film was only available direct-to-video.
The reception to So Undercover was generally negative: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10 alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 49% from audiences, though the direct-to-video release meant that not very many people ever even saw the film.
To begin the higher education analysis of So Undercover, it is worth digging into the host institution for the story. While the school is never named, it is clear from dialogue and external shots that the setting is New Orleans, LA, and the majority of on-campus shooting is done against the backdrop of Tulane University’s scenic campus in uptown New Orleans. The institution itself is never given much detail, but the specific setting and appearance make it clear enough that it is a vaguely fictionalized stand-in for Tulane.
A number of times throughout the movie, Miley Cyrus’s character is shown to have guns in her sorority house room, which shocks a number of her sisters. Laws regarding the possession of firearms on college campuses vary by state – in some, guns are outright banned, while others only permit their presence when secured in a locked car in a parking lot. Other states, like Utah, allow for open and concealed carry at public higher education institutions. In Louisiana, the law on the topic applies to both public and private higher education institutions, and reads as follows:
Carrying a firearm, or dangerous weapon as defined in R.S. 14:2, by a student or nonstudent on school property, at a school sponsored function, or in a firearm-free zone is unlawful and shall be defined as possession of any firearm or dangerous weapon, on one’s person, at any time while on a school campus, on school transportation, or at any school sponsored function in a specific designated area including but not limited to athletic competitions, dances, parties, or any extracurricular activities, or within one thousand feet of any school campus.
However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Notably, one of these states that “a student who possesses a firearm in his dormitory room” is exempt – while I am not a lawyer, I suspect this wording would include a personal sorority house room. Thus, according to Louisiana law, Hannah Montana is a-ok to be armed in her sorority house. That said, there have been a number of real news stories of Greek organizations having firearms issues in their houses. In 2006, the investigation of a shooting led to a search of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house at Oregon State University, which yielded over two dozen firearms throughout the house.
After a Corvallis man, Dennis Sanderson, was shot Oct. 14, in the alley behind the house, police searched Alpha Gamma Rho and found more than two dozen weapons including .22-caliber rifles and 12- and 20-gauge shotguns.
The central plot of the So Undercover revolves around the FBI needing to embed on a college campus for a case. In truth, it is not unheard of for the FBI to be active on college campuses. Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universitiesby Daniel Golden is a book that spotlights the actions of intelligence agencies on American college campuses, including research espionage by foreign powers, attempts to turn foreign students into American assets, and faculty acting as informants on all sides. The FBI was also instrumental in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which uncovered widespread college admissions fraud at universities like the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown.
What I have not been able to dig up, however, are any examples of the FBI infiltrating a sorority. The closest thing I found was the story of Tracy Walder, who went from being a sorority member at the University of Southern California immediately into a career in CIA counterterrorism after graduation, and eventually a position at the FBI. Her story has been turned into a forthcoming book, The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life, which is set to become a television show at ABC.
At one point in the film, there is a passing reference to sorority members having eating disorders. A 2013 article cited that eating disorders affect 12-25% of college women, and that there is a positive correlation between sorority membership and eating disorders. In the study, the authors sought to confirm a causal link between the two. However, they concluded the following:
we confirm that sororities exert a negative effect on the weight-related behaviors of their members. However, females who are more resilient to these outcomes self-select into sororities, implying that females in sororities are less adversely affected by them than a female who was randomly selected to join a sorority would be.
The sorority at the center of the story is named Kappa Kappa Zeta, a wholly fictitious organization. However, there is a Kappa Kappa Zeta website, which features stills and a gallery of characters from So Undercover in a facsimile of a real sorority website. The real-life inspiration for the sorority, judging from the name, is likely Kappa Kappa Gamma, a prominent sorority located at roughly 170 campuses in the United States.
Miley Cyrus’s character in the film operates under the cover story of being a transfer student from another chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Hawaii. As far as we see, she is accepted into the sorority without any issue. However, as with the legacy point, this doesn’t seem to be how the process typically works now. I haven’t been able to dig up much information on the topic, but based on the responses to a reddit question in r/GreekLife, typically a vote is taken as to whether a transfer student is accepted into the chapter at their new school. However, as with most policies, this can vary by organization and chapter.
One member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority is shown at one point to be pregnant. I did a little bit of searching for studies on the perception of pregnancy among sororities, and wasn’t able to find anything. However, I did come across an interesting 2010 thesis on communication in sororities about condom use and sexual activity, that mentions the declining sexual health and rising pregnancy rates of teenage women.
The head of the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter in the film, Sasha, is said to have taken three years away from school before starting college. This means that the character is on the cusp of being classified as a “nontraditional student.” This term, which is problematic in many ways, is also not well-conceptualized. Typically it is loosely defined as an umbrella term for college students outside of the 18-22 age range, but it is often expanded to include students along a number of other classifications, including those who are enrolled on a part-time basis, those who work full time or are financially independent, and students who defer college admission immediately after finishing high school. In the most wide usage of the term, Sasha qualifies as a non-traditional student. This got me to wondering: do nontraditional sorority sisters experience sorority culture differently? Are they particularly more or less likely to be involved?
To my surprise, I couldn’t dig up much information about this topic. However, there is one study that indicated that surveyed non-traditional students in Southern California who transferred into four-year colleges from community colleges were comparatively more satisfied with fraternities and sororities than traditional students. However, that is based on just one question from a much larger study, and fraternity/sorority satisfaction rates weren’t high among either group.
Overall, So Undercover isn’t a good movie, but it was far more charming than what I anticipated. Miley Cyrus is clearly a gifted performer, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see more serious acting from her in the future (her upcoming role in Black Mirror seems to be indicative of this). Jeremy Piven channels his typical douche-bag energy effectively into this role as well. The humor, however, is often mean-spirited, and places targets on the various sorority members. A number of moments feel misogynistic or just generally punching-down at young women, but the wild tone shifts are dramatic and weird enough to leave those concerns quickly in the rear view.
As portrayal of higher education, I can’t speak to the veracity of the sorority portrayal beyond the research I could dig up. However, the concept of the story is interesting, and touches on a handful of real issues in the sphere of higher education, such as the entanglement of intelligence organizations with various collegiate institutions. As far as a recommendation goes, I think this movie has been rightly forgotten, and isn’t particularly worth seeking out.
In honor of tonight’s conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid is going to take a look at director William Friedkin’s 1994 college basketball tale, Blue Chips.
William Friedkin is often cited as one of the key luminaries of the New Hollywood era of film, with classic works like The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer to his name. However, since the late 1970s, his works have garnered far less critical and popular attention, outside of sporadic praise for films like To Live and Die In LA, Killer Joe, and Bug. Among his less analyzed films is Blue Chips, which connects his film work to his passion for the sport of basketball, through a fictional portrayal of desperately rebuilding college basketball program.
The screenplay for Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, who has carved a career niche for writing up sports-based tales like The Great White Hype, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump.
Perhaps due to connections through Friedkin and Shelton, both noted sports fanatics, Blue Chips is littered with notable basketball figures, in both character and cameo capacities. The most notable of these are Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who were then early-career basketball stars, in roles as the eponymous “blue chip” talent prospects.
While Hardaway and O’Neal adequately perform their roles, the heart of the film and focus of the story is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of an aging college basketball coach, facing fading glory and mounting pressures to re-capture success.
In 2019, Memphis Commercial Appeal interviewed Penny Hardaway, who is now the University of Memphis basketball coach, about his experience with the making of Blue Chips. Apparently, the reason for hiring basketball players into key roles was because of Friedkin’s staunch desire to feature actual basketball action in the movie, rather than using creative editing, stunts, and camera trickery. Thus, no actors could be found who could pull off the basketball demands of the roles.
“It was a good movie,” Hardaway said. “Not just because I was in it – it was a great basketball movie. I really liked that they just allowed us to play basketball. It wasn’t much acting. It was playing ball.”
Notably, the chemistry between Hardaway and Shaq that was built over the making of Blue Chips ultimately led to Shaq requesting that his team, the Orlando Magic, draft Hardaway in the 1993 NBA Draft.
“Let me tell you something, boys,” he said. “We’ve got 24 seconds to play and fate’s got us up by three. We sure as hell aren’t going to lose to a bunch of (derogatory term) from Hollywood now.”
To begin the higher education analysis of the film, I want to try to establish the higher education setting of the story. As is typically the case, the central institution is fictional – Western University. While there is an institution that goes by this name today in London, Ontario, it is technically the University of Western Ontario, and only took on the new moniker as of 2012. There was once a Western University located in Kansas, but it closed in 1943 due to the economic strains of the Great Depression.
While Western University as featured in Blue Chips is fictional, I believe that it is functionally a stand-in for UCLA. While the campus sequences in the film were shot at the nearby rival school University of Southern California, there are some clues that point to Western being a surrogate for UCLA. First, the location of the school is firmly established as Los Angeles, which narrows down the institution candidate pool significantly. Additionally, the Western University color scheme (blue and yellow) is clearly reminiscent of the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps most compellingly, the established history and legacy of repeated basketball success (vis-a-vis championships) at Western University lines up pretty well with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s under John Wooden.
A number of other higher education institutions are also represented in the film, both fictional and real. One in particular blurs the line between the two – Texas Western. In the film, this team is referred to as the Texas Western Cowboys, and are coached by controversial college basketball figure Rick Pitino. In reality, today’s University of Texas – El Paso Miners were once referred to as the Texas Western College Miners until a formal name change in 1967. Interestingly, this was implemented just one year after the Texas Western Miners won the NCAA basketball championship, and cemented the name in college basketball history.
Another higher education institution that is shown in competition with Western University is never referred to by name – however, the uniforms identify the school by the abbreviated nickname, “Coast.” This is most likely a loose stand-in for Coastal Carolina University, which often uses the abbreviation “Coastal” on the front of their basketball jerseys. The team is notably shown coached by Nolan Richardson, who is known for his coaching success at multiple levels of the sport.
The one definitively real university athletic team featured in Blue Chips is the Indiana University Hoosiers, who are shown coached by Bobby Knight, whose tenure at the school stretched nearly 30 years.
As with the majority of higher education institutions in the film, the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself has a fictionalized stand-in: the NCSA. While the initialism is never defined, its prominence on championship banners and referee uniforms makes it clear that this is the fictionalized NCAA.
Western University’s athletics teams are known as the Dolphins, and are accompanied by a dolphin mascot. While this is certainly a curious choice, it is by far not the most bizarre. That said, I was curious if any other universities have embraced the “Dolphins” moniker – as it turns out, there are a handful. According to The Los Angeles Times, California State University – Channel Islands teams go by the name “Dolphins,” though there doesn’t appear to be much athletic activity at the school. Likewise, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has also embraced the Dolphins name, along with Jacksonville University, which also has a humanoid dolphin mascot named “Dunk’n.”
Much of Blue Chips is dedicated to portraying the recruiting process to bring new players into a college basketball program. In particular, there is a specific emphasis on recruiting practices that violate regulations. As mentioned previously, the real NCAA has a fictional stand-in in the form of NCSA – however, the regulations of the two organizations appear to be the same. The violation most prominently featured is the explicit ban on “extra benefits” offered to athletes beyond their scholarship, which are defined as:
“any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletic interests (including fans) to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by the NCAA legislation.”
What is most interesting about the portrayal of recruiting violations in Blue Chips is that each of the families has an expectation of payment from the outset, with full knowledge that this is in violation of rules. One prospect’s mother justifies her financial requests by stating that “a foul is not a foul unless a referee blows a whistle,” and another athlete’s father succinctly claims that “they ain’t my rules” after requesting a new tractor. The high-profile nature of NCAA recruiting violations have, in a way, apparently created a normative expectation of special privileges for star athletes and their families, which is arguably reinforced through popular culture portrayals like Blue Chips. Every time a school like Baylor University or the University of Louisville is caught in an athletic scandal that gets covered extensively in the media, the message is sent to aspiring prospects that opportunities for payment and compensation exist if they look for them.
At one point in the film, Western University’s coach mentions Proposition 48 when approaching a basketball prospect who scored poorly on their SAT. This is a real NCAA regulation that governs the minimum academic qualifications for college student-athletes, which takes into account both high school grades and standardized test scores. In this case, the student’s SAT was too low to qualify, which prompts his retaking of the test after receiving tutoring.
Prior to the events of Blue Chips, the Western University basketball program was at one point embroiled in a point shaving scandal. Point shaving is the the willful act of manipulating the score through intentional play for the purposes of promoting a specific outcome that has gambling implications. In the 1978-1979 season, a number of Boston College basketball players were bribed for the purposes of point shaving, in order to benefit a mob-orchestrated gambling scheme. A documentary about the scandal, Playing for the Mob, was released in 2014, and a comprehensive book about the incident, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, was published in 2001. In 2015, former criminal and FBI informant Henry Hill, Jr., who was intimately involved in the scandal, co-authored a book that went into more detail about the planning and execution of the plot.
On the whole, Blue Chips is in an intriguing portrayal of a college basketball program. If anything, it is a bit oversimplified and glossy in its characterizations and portrayals of the dynamics between players, coaches, administrators, and boosters, but is done so for the purposes of the story. As a portrayal of college athletics, it certainly touches on a number of real issues, though some of them are framed oddly. For instance, the idea that student-athletes should be paid is scoffed at off-hand, and the portrayals of the players focuses on wanting money exclusively for luxuries rather than necessities, which simplifies the very real issue of student-athletes struggling to live on their scholarships alone. In order to portray boosters as villainous, the position that work merits compensation is explicitly frowned upon with melodramatic flair.
That said, I think the film merits critical reconsideration – while not a masterpiece, Friedkin’s attention to detail and focus on the fidelity of the basketball portrayal comes through in the game sequences. In the same way that Friedkin has conveyed the frenetic energy of car chases in his career, he catches lightning in a bottle in putting basketball to celluloid in Blue Chips. While the higher education portrayal is perhaps a bit spotty, the film as a whole is not bad, and is an interesting counter-narrative to many college sports films in its morally-conflicted central character portrayals and de-emphasis on competitive glory as the ultimate ends.
Apparently, today is the 8th anniversary of the start of this blog.
This seems as good a time as any to address something: Misantropey has been an increasingly difficult endeavor for me as of late. Though, I’m not sure if that is a bad thing.
When I started putting diligent effort into this beast back in 2014, it admittedly wasn’t entirely fueled by passion. It was propelled as much by loneliness and isolation as any positive resonance I felt from the regular accomplishment of writing and posting.
During my time covering the IMDb Bottom 100, I had a job that was time-consuming, emotionally-taxing, and required a significant amount of travel. I can’t recall how many of those entries were written in dingy hotel rooms in remote towns in Georgia or Arkansas or North Carolina, so often adorned with shoddily duct-taped windows that did little to shield me from wafts of diesel vapors and the faint aromas of the distant tacos of strangers.
This blog was a surrogate for human interaction and companionship, and a pretty bad one. It consumed time, but provided no caloric content in return. It made days and nights pass quicker in the same way magicians make planes and buildings disappear – it didn’t. I just really wanted to believe it did.
I came up with a formula for posts that, once you know what it is, should be pretty transparent. I have always used the same skeletal outline, with very little variation:
I was able to crank out “reviews” like clockwork by hanging flesh loosely on those bones. I put “reviews” in quotations, because they have never really been that. For the most part, these posts were opportunities for me to research productions, and coalesce the information into a brief, digestible form. The “review,” insomuch as I provided them, was usually only a fraction of a given post (“Criticism” in the outline above). A few salient thoughts, at most.
This has not been a creative endeavor at its core. This has been, for most of its existence, a mechanism. Quasi-therapeutic avoidance and distraction from a life that was, for a significant time, very empty. I set my own deadlines and timetables to round out an illusion of meaningful productivity. There was a time where I was doing an original post, 750-1000 words, every day. I would block out my weekends around what movies I needed to cover for the week.
Things are different now, though. As my life has gotten better, the blog has gotten harder. Since starting graduate school and getting married, there have been so many other, wonderful things to take up my time, and I haven’t felt the need for this mechanism of depression prestidigitation by way of amateur film criticism. I’ve also taken up academic writing, and have a handful of journal publications coming in the next few months. I’ll even be starting PhD work in the fall, which is deeply exciting.
I’m been working on adapting this blog into something more fulfilling, and a little different. Ivy On Celluloid has given me some new life for this work – I’ve only done it when it felt right, and have tried to capture a sense of fun with it that has never really been part of the formula here. So, that is something I am certainly going to continue. However, it is also far more time consuming than the formulaic work I’ve relied on in the past.
I think that is where the future of this blog lies – an embracing of infrequency, and a reclaiming of this platform into something positive and internally fulfilling. To that end, I think I’m done with “bad movies.” I like doing my year-end analyses on the publicly perceived worst films of the year, but unless I see something that actually catches my attention, fascination, or curiosity, I’m not going to write about it. I’m not sure what that means for content just yet – but I think I’m shattering the old skeleton structure for good.
So, this blog is going to be different going forward. It will certainly be quieter, but it will also be better – I’m only going to write when there is something motivating behind it. I’m not going to let this be a burden or a coping mechanism – it is going to be an outlet for my thoughts about movies. That’s what it always should have been.
Today, I’m continuing my series of posts analyzing films for their portrayals of higher education by taking a deep dive into Adam Sandler’s college football comedy, The Waterboy.
The plot of The Waterboy is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A waterboy for a college football team discovers he has a unique tackling ability and becomes a member of the team.
The Waterboy was directed by Frank Coraci (The Ridiculous 6, Click, The Wedding Singer), who is primarily known for his numerous collaborations with comedy writer/actor Adam Sandler, The Waterboy among them. The screenplay was co-written by Sandler along with another one of his frequent collaborators, Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, Saturday Night Live).
Beyond Sandler, the cast of the film includes Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days, Night Shift), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Island of Doctor Moreau), Jerry Reed (Smokey & The Bandit), Clint Howard (Evilspeak, The Ice Cream Man, Apollo 13), and Rob Schneider (The Hot Chick, The Animal).
Co-writer of The Waterboy Tim Herlihy described in an interview the inspiration for the fictional institution name ‘South Central Louisiana State University’:
I always remember Southwest Missouri State… I just thought that was so funny. Not even South Missouri State. Like, Southwest Missouri State. They didn’t even have one direction. They had to share the South direction with Southeast Missouri State. So we definitely wanted to do that.
Critically, The Waterboy didn’t fare terribly well, with critics labeling it as “trash,”“witless,” and “dumb.” However, it proved to be financially successful, taking in a worldwide theatrical gross of over $185 million on a production budget of $23 million, carving a place for itself in the public zeitgeist. It is now hailed by many as a cult classic, and generational favorite sports comedy.
To begin the higher education analysis, I want to take a look at the various schools portrayed in the film. As with Necessary Roughness, there is a mixture of fictitious and real institutions. Real colleges featured include Clemson University, the University of Michigan, the University of Louisville, and the University of Iowa, who are all shown in either montages or mentioned in passing. Another institution that I believe is featured is Vanderbilt University. Though it is not mentioned by name, a football team is shown with an almost identical star-shaped helmet insignia and color palette, which I have compared side-by-side below.
The fictitious universities in the film include the two central institutions to the story – University of Louisiana, and South Central Louisiana State University. University of Louisiana is depicted as a large university with a recent history of national football success. For this reason, I think that it is clearly intended to be a parallel to Louisiana State University, despite how close the fictional name is to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette or University of Louisiana – Monroe. South Central Louisiana State University, on the other hand, is pretty clearly portrayed as a less successful “little brother” to the University of Louisiana. From what I can gather, however, it is still definitely a generally-focused public institution, which rules out a few real universities in the state as parallels (Tulane, LA Tech). A detail that is implied by Bobby Boucher’s commuter status is that both University of Louisiana and South Central Louisiana State University are within easy driving distance of each other, which helps narrow down real-life candidates. Based on this, I think it is immensely clear that the SCLSU Mud Dogs are a stand-in for the Ragin’ Cajuns from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are merely an hour from each other, and separated by swampy terrain akin to how Bobby’s home is portrayed.
Aside from the University of Louisiana and SCLSU, a number of the other football teams from the film hail from fictitious institutions. One game is shown between SCLSU and the University of Central Kentucky. There isn’t actually a University of Central Kentucky – among the six Division I schools with football teams in the state, I believe the closest analogue is Western Kentucky University. Likewise, another game features the University of West Mississippi -an institution that doesn’t exist. As with Kentucky, there are six real Division I schools with football teams in Mississippi, of which I suspect University of Southern Mississippi is the real life parallel (mostly due to the direction-based naming).
The climactic championship game featured in the film is called the Bourbon Bowl, which follows the naming tradition of post-season games in Division I FBS college football. While there have been a number of oddly named bowl games due to various sponsorships, there has never been a Bourbon Bowl. Given the records of the teams invited – University of Louisiana is undefeated, and SCLSU is only shown to have one loss – it is fair to assume that the Bourbon Bowl is a bowl game with significant prestige, akin to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. However, the game is also clearly local to both University of Louisiana and SCLSU, as Bobby and his family are shown commuting to the game in a short period of time. The only bowl game of that significance within close range of Lafayette and Baton Rouge is the Sugar Bowl, which famously is held in New Orleans. Because the setting of the stadium is clearly not urban, I think it is fair to conclude that the Bourbon Bowl isn’t an exact stand-in for any one bowl game, but is a general amalgamation of the concept of a high-profile bowl game.
That said, there is another question worth asking about the Bourbon Bowl: is it a national championship game? The history of a “national championship” in college football is a bit odd and contentious – prior to the past few decades, it was often a very subjective title, awarded occasionally to different teams by different organizations in the absence of a decisive championship game. 1998, the year that The Waterboy was released, marked the first Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which arranged for the two highest-ranked teams to play in a decisive championship outing. The rankings, which were the subject of popular scrutiny and suspicion, utilized a handful of high-profile polls and computerized rankings to determine the contestants. A major downside to this system, however, is that there could easily be more than two teams with a strong case to participate in a national championship game – which ultimately gave rise to the playoff system that exists today.
We know that both the University of Louisiana and SCLSU had very strong records going into the Bourbon Bowl – U of L was undefeated, and SCLSU only had one loss. However, undefeated teams have been left out of national championships games – in 1998, for instance, an undefeated Tulane University football team was not selected for the game. Considering this fact in conjunction with the lack of national championship branding or discussion around the Bourbon Bowl indicates to me that University of Louisiana was passed over for the formal national championship game, which put them in position to claim a co-championship if they defeated SCLSU in the Bourbon Bowl. This exact scenario played out in the 2003 season, when an undefeated and widely-acclaimed University of Southern California squad was passed over for the championship game, and claimed co-champion status after subsequently winning their bowl game. However, a more apt comparison for the SCLSU – U of L Bourbon Bowl is the 1997 Rose Bowl match played between Arizona State University and Ohio State University. Going into the game, Arizona State was undefeated, and in position to claim a co-championship with a win over the one-loss Ohio State (as USC would do in 2004 with its Rose Bowl win over Michigan). However, Arizona State lost their game, just as University of Louisiana is shown losing to SCLSU, squandering their chance to claim a national championship. So, in effect, the Bourbon Bowl both was and was not a national championship game, depending on how you look at it.
At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher set a new NCAA record for sacks in a single game with 16. The actual record for sacks in a single game in NCAA Division I FBS is 6, which is co-held by Ameer Ismail of Western Michigan University and Elvis Dumervil of the University of Louisville. The idea of 16 sacks per game, considering the current NCAA record, may seem ludicrous. However, I decided to look into how many offensive plays occur per team in a typical DI college football game, which can be found here.
This graph was actually broken in 2016, when the University of California ran 118 offensive plays against the University of Oregon. However, the average offensive plays per team in a game has easily stayed between 60 and 80 over the past ten years. For the sake of calculation, let’s assume Bobby Boucher’s SCLSU opponents run 70 plays per game – this means roughly a quarter of their plays (22.85%) would need to conclude with Bobby Boucher sacks. However, that also assumes that Bobby earns all of his sacks on his own – sacks are also recorded in increments of .5 when multiple individuals contribute to the tackle. However, Bobby is never shown co-sacking a quarterback on screen, and it is frequently stated that he is the only capable athlete on the team, so it is safe to assume that Bobby is only accruing full sacks.
Another piece of dialogue states that Bobby’s sack rate actually increases after he sets the single game sack record at 16 – a team-mate mentions that he averages “20 sacks a game.” In order to reach that rate, we need to consider the length of a college football season. While this has changed over the years, most recently with the implementation of the playoff system in FBS, let’s say that a successful, bowl-appearance season has 13 games. Given his 16 sack performance in game one of the season, in order to reach the 20 sack/game average, Bobby would need to exceed 20 sacks at least once while maintaining a steady 20 sack/game rate throughout the season – a single 24 sack game would suffice to make the grade. Assuming this is how he reached his average sacks/game rate, this means that in at least one game of average offensive play quantity for the opposing team (70, for the sake of argument), Bobby would have sacked the quarterback on 34.3% of plays. While this seems incredibly unlikely, I don’t think it is anywhere near an impossibility – given a sufficiently incompetent offensive line and quarterback, there’s no reason to consider this feat technically impossible.
One of the most potent and vividly revolting illustrations in the film is the dichotomy between the amenities and conditions for the SCLSU and University of Louisiana football teams and athletics departments. SCLSU students are shown drinking out of a clearly unsafe water container, whereas U of L has a (assumedly) fully-funded water hydration station. Likewise, SCLSU football players frequently are shown sharing equipment – everything from helmets to sweaty cups.
While these disparities are definitely dramatized, there is certainly some truth to the portrayal. I recently spoke to an Associate Athletics Director at a small Division I football school, who told me about how different his current experience is to his previous role at an athletically-prestigious flagship institution – which included differences in pay, staffing, general amenities for students and staff, and, of course, the state-of-the-art facilities. The depiction in The Waterboy of the flagship institution having far more funds than a smaller, in-state competitor is, from what I have gathered, a fact of life in college athletics.
The SCLSU football coach, portrayed by Henry Winkler, is eventually revealed to have had a sort of burnout and breakdown after losing out on a coveted head coaching position to his rival on the University of Louisiana coaching staff. It is well-known that stress is part of the job of a college football coach – it isn’t even unheard of for coaches to suffer health issues associated with the job. So, the portrayal of a coach burning out certainly has some grounding in truth. Likewise, rivalries between coaches aren’t uncommon – many coaches serve on staffs together over the course of their careers, and later become opponents (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, for instance). The idea of a rivalry formed between coaches from a common history on a given staff certainly seems to hold water as a plausible scenario.
The first time Bobby is shown tackling a quarterback in practice, the aftermath is framed comedically, with the quarterback having apparently lost his immediate memory and general awareness. In truth, these are clear, immediate symptoms of a concussion. In 1998, when the film was released, research had not yet come out about the long-term dangers of concussions as a form of traumatic brain-injury, particularly for athletes in contact sports. Now, this is a major issue for both college football and most professional sports, and is speculated to be a potential existential threat to status quo of competitive athletics.
Throughout the events of The Waterboy, a number of off-color, homophobic comments are made by characters. While this is certainly in part due to the nature of this genre of crass comedy and the context of the film’s release, the truth is that this is probably an accurate portrayal of a college football team at this point in time. There is a wealth of literature and research on homophobia within athletics, and particularly collegiate athletics. College football, as a homogenously-male sport, is statistically even more likely to be more homophobic than women’s sports teams. So, it is certainly not a stretch for causally homophobic dialogue to fly around a college football locker room or practice field.
Though it is never specifically stated, it is highly suggested that Bobby Boucher is a first generation college student – meaning that he is the first member of his family to attend college. This is hinted through a number of sequences – for instance, he picks his classes solely based on the view of campus from the classrooms, as opposed to course difficulty or fit with his major. First generation college students often have difficultly navigating universities, due to a lack of institutional knowledge that is typically passed down from college graduates to their children.
Connected to the forgery revelation is a level of malicious espionage – the staff of the University of Louisiana expose the misdeed of SCLSU’s coach to the NCAA, in an attempt to harm the on-field production of the school’s football team in the upcoming Bourbon Bowl. The use of NCAA reporting as a means of attacking a sporting rival was recently a subject in the SBnation documentary series Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, which features a member of the Mississippi State University football team testifying to recruiting violations at the rival University of Mississippi.
There are certainly plenty more higher education topics that can be discussed through The Waterboy – the physical assault of a professor by a student, the discipline exceptions offered to star student-athletes, and the parental pressures placed on many top-grade student-athletes to turn professional as early as possible are among them. However, I’m going to see if I can swing back to those topics in future reviews – I suspect I’ll be back to the realm of college football before too long.
Overall, The Waterboy is every bit the sophomoric, shallow comedy the world has come to expect from Adam Sandler. However, it is also an interesting, comedically-contorted portrayal of college football culture, which is integral to many institutions of higher education in the United States. There isn’t anything novel, witty, or innovative about the humor or story, and there is certainly much about the film that has become dated, but it is an interesting film to peruse for folks interested in college athletics and higher education as fields of study. Alternatively, those who find uproarious comedic value in a chorus of Henry Winklers tauntingly singing about the comparative benefits of Gatorade over water as a means of hydration will find something pleasing here.
Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.