Liev Schreiber in the movie "Goon." (Magnet Releasing, Magnet…)
American audiences know Jay Baruchel as the nerdy kid from such films as "Knocked Up" and "She's Out of My League." But with the new hockey comedy "Goon," the Montreal native is making the leap to feature film screenwriter. He and Evan Goldberg ("Superbad") teamed up to pay homage to Canada's national pastime with a movie that's violent on the ice and tenderhearted off — but it is thoroughly, unquestionably Canadian.
"We made it for somebody, and we made it for Canadian kids," Baruchel, 29, said in a recent interview. "Growing up, Canadian films and TV shows were always regarded as second-tier, and I was like, why don't we just make something awesome that kids will dig? Why should we deny where we're from?"
Opening in theaters Friday and already available on video-on-demand, the film stars Seann William Scott as Doug Glatt, a small-town bar bouncer who is drafted to play for a hockey team because of how well he can both throw and take a punch. Soon Doug is moving up the ranks of "enforcers," players who hit the ice largely to fight and protect other players, setting him on a collision course with a soon-to-retire legend, Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schreiber).
As the sweet, slightly dim Doug discovers what his unusual gift can do for him, he is plunged into the seedy world of buses, bars and locker rooms that make up hard-working, small-time hockey. Neither his family nor his doctors understands what he sees in the sport, as a young woman (Alison Pill) captures his attention. Amid the broken teeth and locker talk, the film touches meaningfully on issues of identity and self-discovery.
Baruchel, who plays a supporting role in the film and also is credited as a producer on "Goon," said he and Goldberg based their main character on a pair of players from hockey's minor-league past, Doug Smith and Mike Bajurny — as well as Baruchel's father, who once played for an all-Jewish team.
Determined to infuse the story with a love of the game and Canadian culture, Baruchel brought the project to Michael Dowse. The 38-year-old Montreal-based director had demonstrated an ability to mix comedy and poignancy in films including "Fubar" and "Fubar II," about a heavy-metal party dude dealing with testicular cancer, and "It's All Gone Pete Tong," about a rave DJ who loses his hearing.
"Michael's movies are so much fun to watch that you don't realize he's making you think and feel too," Baruchel said.
Minnesota native Scott was cast in the lead role, and Dowse said he was impressed with how well the actor conveyed the heart and emotions of the character. Scott developed what they came to call "the Doug filter," as the actor could improvise in character to most any situation — even during fights on the ice.
"It's hard to play a dumb character smartly," Dowse said. "He's simple and uncomplicated. And that's what Seann does."
Just as "Goon" was about to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the world of hockey was forced to grapple with some hard realities stemming from its culture of violence and aggression. The sport was rocked by a string of untimely deaths of former enforcers, including two suicides, leading to increased awareness of the long-term health effects of the brawling style of play.
The events led to some soul-searching among the filmmakers, but they ultimately chose not to make any changes to the comedy.
"It's very sad, and you definitely want to pay respect to those guys and be respectful of them as you release the film," Dowse said. "We just wanted to continue to celebrate those guys and how great they are. That's all I ever thought the film was, not a critique, not satire. Especially with a comedy you don't want to be making fun of those guys in any way. And we're not."
Though the film received mixed reviews in Canada, it opened in the No. 1 spot at the Canadian box office last month, and Baruchel is optimistic that the movie will play to hockey — and comedy — fans in the U.S. as well. After all, the Great White North has been mined for humor before, as a generation of Bob and Doug McKenzie enthusiasts will happily attest.
"I thought we'd be underestimated," Baruchel said. "People didn't take it seriously and wrote it off before they saw it, based on surface stuff and preconceived notions of who I am, who Seann is, a bunch of different reasons. It's great when people are like, 'It's actually good.'"
"The really pleasant surprise was when I was cutting the film, I'd show it to my wife and our circle of friends, and women really liked the film," Dowse added. "I think it's the heart that Seann shows and that's something people understand. It appeals to women in a way I never thought it would."
Perhaps catching himself making his brash, body-checking comedy sound a little too sensitive, Dowse added, "And chicks like hockey players."