In the past, director Michael Ritchie ("Smile," "The Candidate" and "The Bad News Bears") has been a sharp-eyed satirist, fascinated by the art of competition and the antics of underdogs.
But in recent years, his films' wisecracks have sometimes overwhelmed their keen social observations. With "Wildcats" (citywide Friday), Ritchie doesn't aim much higher. It's a good-natured but superficial comedy--sort of a "Bad News Bears Goes to the Ghetto"--about a spunky female football coach who strives for recognition while taming a delinquent gang of inner-city funkateers.
The heroine is Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn), a girls' track instructor whose dream is to follow in the footsteps of her father, a legendary football coach. She finally gets her chance, but only by taking a coaching vacancy at impoverished Central High, where the office clocks have wire-mesh protectors, Dobermans patrol the hallways and the football team last "won" a game when its opponents' bus broke down.
Seeing McGrath as the latest insult to their decrepit football program, the squad heaps a torrent of abuse on its new coach, hoping to send her fleeing back to the suburbs. When she doesn't crack, the team agrees to stick with her for the rest of the season.
McGrath's mettle is tested on the home front as well. A divorcee with two young daughters, she has to battle a stodgy ex-husband (James Keach), who seems determined to undermine what little self-assurance she's developed. He's also clearly horrified by the prospect of his daughters falling under the spell of McGrath's scruffy new surrogate sons, especially after a run-in with the kids at the team's raucous first victory party.
Ritchie is a clever director and, aided by a remarkably agile, endearing performance by Hawn, it's easy for us to identify with McGrath, who struggles to instill a measure of pride not only in herself but in the team as well. Several members of the Wildcats also emerge as intriguing characters, most notably Bird (Mykel T. Williamson), the errant quarterback who's too cool for school, and Finch (Tab Thacker), a savvy, Refrigerator-sized tackle who is far more comfortable wheeling and dealing than working up a sweat on the practice field.
But despite some exuberant football action, a pair of buoyant rock-sound-track montage scenes and a tidy, uplifting finale, "Wildcats" is a disappointingly timid fable. It's refreshing to see a strong-willed female character like McGrath, who's loaded with grit and determination. But she's surrounded by so many cardboard figures--her ex-husband is a cowardly worm, her rival football coach a wild-eyed chauvinist--that her triumph has the hollow ring of comic melodrama. (We won't even get into the issue of black stereotypes here--suffice to say that the film's notion of ghetto authenticity is to give the players names like Trumaine and Marvel.)
The film makers have made McGrath such a superwoman, both on the field and in the home, that they've smoothed over all the rough edges that would give the comedy some bite. The movie is such a well-oiled dream machine that it would've been nice if the story, for all its corny charm, had veered off in a more adventuresome or unpredictable direction.
It hardly seems like so much to ask, especially coming from Ritchie--a director with such a keen eye for cultural detail--and Hawn, an enormously assured comic performer, who as a producer wields the clout to pull off a more challenging project. (The only really striking moment in the whole film is its closing music number, a supremely cool rap sequence where the cast performs L. L. Cool J's "Football Rap.") "Wildcats" may be a crowd-pleaser, but you wish it were half as provocative as it is eager to please.
'WILDCATS' A Hawn/Sylbert Production of a Warner Bros. picture. Producer Anthea Sylbert. Director Michael Ritchie. Writer Ezra Sacks. Camera Donald E. Thorin. Editor Richard A. Harris. Music Hank Wolinski, James Newton Howard. Production design Boris Leven. With Goldie Hawn, James Keach, Swoosie Kurtz, Nipsey Russell, Bruce McGill, M. Emmet Walsh, Mykel T. Williamson, Nick Corri, Tab Thacker, and Robin Lively.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).