Plenty of movies deal with high-profile college athletics, but why hasn’t anyone made a comedy about intramural sports? Any situation where the stakes are low but emotions are high is ripe for mockery, and that’s intramural play in a nutshell. Fortunately, this gap has now been filled by “Balls Out” (originally called “Intramural”), a loose — some might say sloppy — underdog comedy that has some solid laughs and just the right amount of heart (almost none).
Our hero, a likable fifth-year senior named Caleb Fuller (Jake Lacy), is about to graduate, take the LSAT, and get married. He’s not sure he actually wants to do all of those things. Fondly recalling the intramural football team he captained freshman year before it was riven by tragedy, he resolves to get the boys back together for one last pre-adulthood hurrah. As he puts it, “This is our last chance to do something that doesn’t matter.”
What was the tragedy that ended the team four years ago? As we saw in the film’s tone-setting prologue, it was that Caleb’s best friend Grant Rosenfalis (Nick Kocher) was hit by a late tackle during the championship game and paralyzed “from the balls down.” They haven’t spoken since. The other players went their separate ways, but Caleb easily reunites the lovable losers: dumb Vinnie (Gabriel Luna), weirdo magician Chance (Brian McElhaney), nerdy George (Will Elliott), and fat, opera-singing cowboy Jimmy (Sam Eidson). Caleb’s current roommate, the generically irresponsible Hank (Nicholas Rutherford), rounds out the squad.
And Grant (yes, his last name is pronounced “Rosen-phallus”), now wheelchair-bound and living like a hermit, returns as the “crusty yet affable veteran” to coach the team, an acknowledged reference to the beloved sports movies of yesteryear. Bradley Jackson’s free-wheeling screenplay has a lot of that kind of meta-humor — I’d be surprised if Jackson isn’t a fan of “Community” — right down to a pair of announcers (Jay Pharoah and D.C. Pierson) who do play-by-play commentary on the games, without microphones, in the empty bleachers, evidently for their own amusement.
The team’s rivals, the Titans, are a bro-moerotic group led by Dick Downs (Beck Bennett), a hyper-aggressive jerk who takes intramural football far more seriously than he should (which is to say, at all). Dick’s sister, Meredith (Nikki Reed), becomes Caleb’s new potential love interest, wooing him away from his clingy, cartoonish fiancee (Kate McKinnon), who the movie clearly only intended to be a placeholder anyway. There are training montages and faux-inspirational speeches, which coach Grant delivers in a Charlton Heston-y voice.
Directed by Andrew Disney, the film’s humor is mildly satiric at times, but mostly it’s broad and farcical, grounded in relatable conflicts and characters but not limited by the constraints of reality. George the nerd gets shot in one scene, stabbed in another, but is always OK the next time we see him, and there are sequences with a rollerskating gang from out of an ’80s post-apocalyptic movie. Beck Bennett goes all-out nutso as the douchey villain, a potential break-out performance for the up-and-coming “SNL” star, while his castmate Kate McKinnon is amusing but misused as the grating fiancee.
Most of the leads are less well-known than that. Their fresh-faced anonymity actually works in the movie’s favor, reinforcing the underdog motif and inviting us to root for them. Some of the dead-end gags would have been excised or rewritten if this were a stricter production, but it’s funny more often than it isn’t. And while a more disciplined approach might have rendered a tighter, more polished film, its shagginess is appealing.
B- (1 hr., 38 min.; )