Thursday, 6 April 2006

The Benchwarmers (2006)

Q: What can be better than a Rob Schneider comedy?
A: When it stars other great comedians and ex-colleagues from SNL.

Rob Schneider is the greatest American comedian alive. He – unlike his detractors – understand what good comedy is about. To have a great situation comedy, you need a gimmick, and a twist. For example, in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, the gimmick is Rob Schneider playing an inept and clumsy male prostitute. The twist is all his clients are bigger losers than his character. Or take Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant HBO comedy, The Comeback. The gimmick is an aging, fading, irrelevant comedian who attempts to stage a career comeback by starring in a reality show about her life, and the twist is Kudrow’s character is deliciously unaware of how pathetic she looks on camera (and how more pathetic she will look, post-editing), despite her efforts to convey her charming and optimistic personality on camera.

This is the gimmick in The Benchwarmers: Richie (David Spade), Clark (Jon Heder) and Gus (Rob Schneider) were always condemned to the back bench during sports games and bullied by the jocks when they were young finally get a second chance, much later in life, to play in the baseball league. This being an American sports movie, expect them to win, against all odds. The twist? Their fearsome and tough opponents are 10 to 12-year-olds, who have much more athletic talent than them.

Ordinarily, the sight of grown men beating children at sports is not funny at all. I consider it a sheer evidence of comic genius that this movie made me laugh non-stop, since the group of friends are as unathletic, uncoordinated, socially inept now as when they were 10 years old. So, the kids are more than likely to beat the grown men, if not for Gus, the only talented player on the team. It’s also a sign of brilliant writing that Richie and Clark remind you of real-life losers, and yet are able to remain likeable and worthy of some respect as human beings.

This film celebrates not just the athletically untalented (or the talented unathletes, in the case of Clark), but also the other group of social outcasts in schools, the geeks. Jon Lovitz has an unforgettable role as a geek who grew up to be a "zillionaire", and owns a house populated with Star Wars memorabilia.

What type of jokes can you expect in this movie? Surprisingly, The Benchwarmers has very few low-brow jokes that Rob Schneider’s previous films received criticisms for. Instead, the writers poke gentle fun at geeks, the weird and off-tangent lives and world of Richie and Clark, and America’s dual obsession with sports and the Internet. Most of the gags in The Benchwarmers are rooted in situational comedy and take preparation to set up, instead of the typical visual gags and one-liners we expect to see from modern low-brow comedies today. The writers appear favour situational comedy with less jokes in between, which produce a high percentage of hits to misses, over typical comedy, which produce many jokes, but a low percentage of hits.

Part of this change in comedy style from Rob Schneider’s earlier films can be explained if you look at the comic talent involved in The Benchwarmers. Lovitz, Spade and Adam Sandler are all alumni of the hit television comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. This film has the feel of a meticulously planned and written SNL product, rather than a Rob Schneider vehicle or even Adam Sandler comedy. As an ensemble effort, this film shows that more comedians are always better than one working alone. Kudos should also be given to the fast-rising talent Jon Heder, of Napoleon Dynamite fame. His dorky but optimistic vibes prevent The Benchwarmers from descending into a mean-spirited comedy that slams elite athletes.

In the end, you feel all the actors have really enjoyed themselves while making this movie, and that’s also their message to sport players and benchwarmers everywhere: you should be allowed to enjoy yourself, no matter how well or badly you play.

First published at incinemas on 7 April 2006

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