Just when Real Steel seemed to have gotten the uplifting sports drama right by including large amounts of robot-on-robot action, Mighty Macs had to come along and muck it all up by strictly complying to all the worn-out rules. The film—which centers around the Catholic Immaculata University’s improbable 1972 women’s basketball championship—hits all the sentimental tropes of your standard mawkish sports flick.
Sure, the film’s been floating around since 2009, when it premiered at the nation’s preeminent gooey schmalzt-a-thon, the Heartland Film Festival—the mere mention of which makes my teeth ache—which specializes in this cottage industry of heartwarming, manipulative crowdpleasers. Mighty Macs fits this ideal perfectly, complete with the underdog antics of a band of misfit basketball players. There’s a couple of good performances from Carla Gugino, as housewife-turned-basketball coach Cathy Rush, and Marley Shelton as a woman of the cloth suffering from a crisis of faith. But these solid performances make the film all the more frustrating, since they’re totally wasted in this backwash of pap.
The film takes place in the early 1970s, as we find Cathy taking a job—despite a lack of coaching experience—at the financially struggling college as a means of asserting her freedom as a woman. In this respect, the film really wants to be about feminism, but doesn’t really go anywhere with the idea. There’s no real questioning of gender roles—especially in a movie that involves Catholicism. Instead, the feminism is soft-pedaled—as is the film’s religiosity, which is mostly nonexistent—while the bulk of the feature shows how Cathy manages the impossible, by taking her team of young ladies from the improbable confines of their rec-room practice court all the way to the national championship, conceivably saving the school from ruin and teaching some of the girls valuable life lessons.
From an ethical standpoint, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Mighty Macs and its G-rated view of the world, though Cathy’s hard-assed approach to coaching (including borderline abusive and off-putting stunts like having the girls practice drills inside a drainage pipe in the dead of winter) doesn’t always mesh with the movie’s folksy attitude. What is wrong with the film is its worth as entertainment. This is straight-up underdog stuff, right down the homily-spouting coach, and the musical score filled with swelling oboes. It follows that the plot is predictable, but given that the formula here is one of the oldest in cinema, there’s no excuse for the execution being so uninventive and dull. If there was ever a film in dire need of some habit-sporting robot nuns, this is it. Rated G.