In the past two years, Kevin Costner has been prominently featured in six major motion pictures. Six! And he’s starred in four of them! Not to mention another one coming out later this year (co-starring — be still my heart — Ryan Reynolds). My sense of exasperation stems from the inherent confusion this creates in me, since I can’t imagine who, exactly, is asking for all of these Kevin Costner movies. Even more confounding is the idea that there are people out there slinging around millions of dollars to put Kevin Costner in movies. I remember growing up in the ’90s and hearing (admittedly cheap) jokes about his inherent lack of talent as an actor, but here we are, in the year 2015, and we’re being inundated with a tidal wave of Kevin Costner movies. When people want to talk about the lack of verve and originality in film, they should be adding this kind of nonsense to the list along with all the sequels and reboots out there.
All this being said, Costner’s latest, McFarland, USA, isn’t quite half bad (in all honesty, it dangles just centimeters above half bad, like a Sword of Damocles of mediocrity) and is easily the best picture to come out of the great Costner Renaissance. This isn’t saying much and is mostly a byproduct of being a by-the-book, paint-by-numbers uplifting sports flick, the kind of thing Disney trots out once a year before being forgotten a couple months later. It’s a type of formulaic movie they, as a studio, have nailed down, and that — in the bargain — is impossible to screw up. This also means that there’s nothing here you haven’t seen carted out a million other times in a million similarly ephemeral little movies. McFarland, USA is no different, though — at times — it comes across as better than it should be, while never overcoming the inherent dullness and natural lack of imagination the genre demands.
This time around, we’re here to learn all kinds of lessons about life — specifically race, poverty and overcoming predetermined prejudices — through the power of cross country running. Yes, McFarland is just as exciting as that sounds, something that’s compounded by a numbingly overstuffed 128-minute running time. Costner plays Jim White, a former high school football coach who’s run out of opportunities thanks to run-ins with former players and various school boards. With nowhere else to go, he takes a teaching job at a high school in McFarland, Calif., a predominantly Hispanic — and impoverished — little town. After getting dismissed from his assistant coaching job with the football team, Jim sees a way out of his situation — one that worries him thanks to his lack of understanding of Hispanic culture and the prejudices this creates in him — by forming a cross country team consisting of a handful of promising young men.
There are no surprises as to where any of this is going. Jim stops being such a reactionary dolt, the team comes together and overcomes the odds, and Costner even gets to grunt his way through the movie as he’s wont to do these days. In McFarland’s favor, the film looks professional, has a likable tone, and the kids who make up the cross country team are all amiable. As a whole, it makes for a movie that’s passable and little else. Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language.