IN RON SHELTON'S "Bull Durham," one of the best sports movies ever made, Crash Davis coaches his mentee, Nuke LaLoosh, on how to talk to the press. "You're gonna have to learn your clichés," Crash says. When LaLoosh counters that this tactic is boring, Crash replies, " 'Course it's boring, that's the point."
The same could be said for sports movies in general. They all seem to follow the same general pattern: A team must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to win out in the end, even if their triumph isn't literal.
The story of Cathy Rush and the 1971-72 Immaculata College women's basketball team, as recounted in "The Mighty Macs," hits those familiar beats with a happy ending to boot. But what separates cliché from classic is the ability to deviate from the predictable enough to keep the proceedings interesting. Instead of breaking new ground, "The Mighty Macs" revels in clichés, made apparent by the musical score of swelling strings, forcing unearned emotional resonance that the movie can't organically create.
Written by WIP radio midday personality Anthony Gargano and director Tim Chambers, "The Mighty Macs" follows Rush (a steadfast yet feisty Carla Gugino) as she accepts a $450 paycheck to coach the basketball team at the then all-girls Immaculata College, located about 45 minutes west of Philly. With the help of a questioning nun-turned-assistant-coach Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton, entertaining), Rush takes her ragtag group from a team without a gym (it burned down three months earlier) to the champions of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a title Rush would take home three consecutive years.
But the stakes are higher than women's basketball: The college itself is in dire financial straits and the team can barely fund its trip to nationals, forcing Rush to do things like dress in a nun's habit in order to score a free plane ticket. "Don't you get hot in these things?" Rush asks Sunday.
"It ain't easy, sister," Sunday replies.
Chambers' script is full of these winky one-liners, but unfortunately doesn't develop its characters. David Boreanaz takes the thankless job of playing Ed, Rush's husband and an NBA ref, who has little to do but scowl at his ambitious wife as she leaves the house. When the movie shifts focus to the team members' off-court lives, it's hard to tell the girls apart, not to mention feel their emotion.
What the film does bring to the table is a fresh view of pre-Title IX women's sports. Those times before gender equality became law have largely been ignored and forgotten, so we're astonished to see that the ladies room at the school doubles as the visiting team's locker room and the women's basketball courts are so small "the walls are out of bounds." This historical depiction saves "The Mighty Macs" from drowning in its sports-movie clichés.