' ' Cinema Romantico: The Final Season

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Final Season

Based on the true story of Norway, Iowa's celebrated high school baseball team that won 19 consecutive state championships against bigger and brawnier schools before being forced in 1991 to merge with the Benton School District and thereby eliminating the town's true love forevermore "The Final Season" centers around, well, their final season as they make one last push for a state title under a brand new coach. That it is a movie set in my native state warms my heart and that it was actually filmed entirely in Iowa makes me proud and that you can even recognize a few names in the cast if you are at all familiar with the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny Des Moines film community is just super and so I would like more than anything to say I enjoyed "The Final Season" and, heck, it's a nice movie, a polite movie. But....

What do you want me to say? It's just a big bunch of dots that need connecting. This movie will be the same tomorrow because they're all painted by numbers. Plus, it seems to have a serious vendetta against that rootin'-tootin', thinks-its-hot-stuff "big" city Des Moines, a city where I spent most of my formative years. A sample of dialogue:

-"You really don't understand small town America, do you?"
-"I'm from Des Moines."

Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh!!! Take that, high-falutin' Des Moineseans! We just got told what time it is! But, man, do I digress.

The situation: after winning its 19th title in high school baseball the town of Norway is advised by the Madison School District (fictional, and pinch-hitting for Benton) plans to consolidate Norway into its community and by doing so Madison chooses to oust famed head coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), who we know is a legend once we hear him spout phrases like "Out here we grow ballplayers like corn", and install a patsy for coach in the form of Kent Stock (Sean Astin), Van Scoyoc's one year assisant and a former woman's volleyball taskmaster, to ensure the team combusts, thus making the merger much more smooth. Ah, but Stock and his band of Good News Bears have other ideas.

The film pays little attention to the players as individuals aside from Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), the obligatory leather-jacket wearing rebel who is moved from the mean streets of Chicago to Norway by his distracted father (Iowa's own - gulp - Tom Arnold!) and we instantly see what he's up against when he is made fun of by some local kids for attempting to buy cigarettes and lambasted at one crucial juncture with the immortal line: "Your big city crap won't cut it here! Go back to Chicago!" That'll show him! And it does, by golly, because through a little tough love from his grandparents Mitch will come to see the value of a small town work ethic, go out for the baseball team and find him up to bat in the championship game against Goliath with a runner on third, two outs and....but I've gone too far.

Meanwhile Coach Stock faces down disbelieving townfolk and team members who expect to lose after losing Van Scoyoc while still having time for a little romance with the at-first evil lawyer Polly (Rachel Leigh Cook) from haughty Des Moines who deigns to put education before baseball (gasp!) but will eventually come to see that "Norway is baseball."

I don't mind a sports movie that wallows in cliche. Truly, I don't. The core of "Hoosiers" is cliche but it rises above the fray because of its execution, because of its evocative score, because of its ability to make the smallest moments both astute and affecting, and because of a lead performance by Gene Hackman that is so good you hardly even notice it's there. Really, the more I watch "Hoosiers" the more I realize it doesn't sink and instead swims like Mark Spitz because of Hackman as Coach Norman Dale. Hackman tweaks the performance in ways you're not always expecting. I always think of the moment in the locker room in the midst of the disaster of a first game and he moans, "I don't want anyone in the locker room at halftime." The spin he puts on the words suggests a coach having a crisis, about to break down, not re-adjusted to the rigors of coaching. He's vulnerable, not just the coach with all the answers and proper pep talks. He shows us that he while he no longer engages in the volatility that marked his troubled past that it remains there, lurking, and that he must work to contain it. It's not that Sean Astin isn't trying as Kent Stock, because I'm sure he is, but it feels as if he isn't trying. It's his duty to carry the film and he just kinda drags it along behind him.

But maybe I'm out of line. Maybe Astin captured the complete essence of the real Kent Stock. Maybe Norway is proud of the way they were portrayed. Maybe I don't understand small town baseball and small town values and small town work ethics. Maybe growing up a five minute drive from Des Moines and its fancy-pants Skywalk left me at a disadvantage. I pondered all this the other night as I departed my apartment and strolled down Addison and to the Metro to watch Ra Ra Riot take the stage and blow the hinges off the doors and then a couple nights later when I strolled a few blocks north to meet some friends and chow down on the glorious, glorious rahmschnitzel of Resi's Bierstube.

If "The Final Season" taught me anything it's this: I'm quite content with my big city crap, thank you.


Rory Larry said...

I can only imagine the confusion of some New Yorker hearing the line about small town America and Des Moines and trying to figure out how the two are in any way different. Maybe that line is more meta than you think. Maybe the filmmakers aren't looking to you for its audience but rather a metropolitan elitist who will find the film about rural Iowa quaint and "genuine". "I've never been to Iowa but I bet its a lot like the town in 'The Final Season'"

Nick Prigge said...

Hmmmmmm. Interesting theory. Perhaps "The Final Season" is trying to reinforce stereotypes about the state of Iowa on purpose to keep people they don't want in out?