Lame but earnest 'Rudy' goes for the dregs instead of the gusto

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Who says there's nothing new under the sun. Here's a wrinkle previously untried: a movie about . . . a failure.

It's "Rudy," an embarrassing boy weepie from the filmmakers who brought you the pretty good "Hoosiers" and should have known better.

"Rudy" is a study in moronic, almost psychopathic, devotion to an absurd ideal, an ideal that has no coefficient in the real world but could exist in only two places: the superheated macho-nutso grinding machine of a cynical big-time college football program, or the cockpit of a Kamikaze plane, on that screaming last, flack-hunted, gravity-sucking, desperate slide out of the sky into the flight deck of an American carrier. The Japanese called it "The Tragic Nobility of Failure": Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo think it's really cool.

"Rudy" is a scrub's biography. It's about a human tackling dummy who was cynically thrown a bone by Notre Dame's football program and thought it meant something. What a laugh.

Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger of Joliet, Ill., had but one ambition in life -- to play for the Fightin' Irish. That he was five foot nothing, weighed a hundred and nothing and had no appreciable athletic skills bothered him not the least. Reality was not a strong point with Rudy.

As played by the irrepressibly cute Sean Astin, this Rudy totally lacks the inner dimension that would make him interesting, and one certainly suspects that such was true of the actual fellow. No one with a shade of texture or nuance or self-awareness could have set off on such a yellow brick road as did this young man. His earnestness feels not heroic but pathological, like the Kamikaze pilot's "courage."

Worse, the film utterly undercuts what it is about: sports that is so fascinating and so inspirational. Think of all those farm boys tossing the three-pointers through the hoop so that when the time came and the game was on the line, they found it in themselves to make the shot; think of all the inner-city kids, their long, long hours in the alley, working on that penetrating move so they could get through the traffic and get the dunk when the game was on the line; think of the dad throwing pitch after pitch after pitch to his son so that 20 years down the line, in front of the whole world, the game on the line, that boy could get a seventh-game-winning hit. That's the majesty of sports: guts, talent, drive, performance, when something is on the line. That's the joy of sports: the lack of ambiguity between winning and losing. And "Rudy" celebrates somebody who never did a thing. Nothing is on the line. What we have here is an outcome-based sports movie.

Rudy lacked the grades to get into college -- any college -- and settled in for a nepotistic job in the steel mill where his harder working father was a shift foreman. Four years dragged by; then, one of Rudy's friends was killed in an accident and he realized that if he was ever going to Make his Dream Come True, he had to get going.

So, in a fit of the phony naivete that would be his primary weapon (that is, when he is not wheedling pity from others), he took off to South Bend, got a job on the university building and grounds crew where a kindly black gentleman (Charles Dutton) takes a shine to him and gives him free lodging, and entered a junior college. Typical passive-aggressive: He just sort of throws himself at people and acts pitiful, forcing them to either care for him or step on him.

See Rudy toil! See Rudy labor! See Rudy's little brow knit up in depression! See Rudy take notes! It's so interesting!

Well, does anyone doubt Rudy eventually gets into Notre Dame? Would there be a movie about a guy who didn't get into Notre Dame? I mean, if you've seen the commercials you know he gets into Notre Dame.

There, he quickly presents himself to coach Ara Parseghian (Jason Miller, who once upon a time was a playwright, author of "That Championship Season"), who allows him to try out for the taxi squad, that fleet of non-roster players who serve as practice fodder for the more gifted athletes. They're necessary, one supposes; they're just not interesting.

The line on Rudy is that he's all heart; he gets nailed time after time, but his devotion to the flame of Fightin' Irish football burns so pure that he leaps up like a masochist and says, "Hit me again!" He's like a circus geek who keeps doing the unbearable for the amusement of the crowd. At the end of his first year's ordeal, he begs Parseghian to let him into a game; when Parseghian is replaced by Dan Devine (Chelcie Ross), it's Devine who comes up as the villain of the piece, for doing his duty, the job he was trying to do, which is to win football games, not human sensitivity contests.

The movie labors mightily to make the risible case that Rudy's purely symbolic appearance in the last play of a won game has some dramatic significance. Excuse me, but what did it prove? The Hollywood inspiration machine can pound you over the head, but it doesn't make you a believer. As e e cummings' Olaf said, "There is some s. i will not eat."

"Rudy"

Starring Sean Astin

Directed by David Anspaugh

Released by TriStar

Rated PG

... **

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