'The Mighty Macs': Tepid Chicken Soup for the Soul
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If you spend Sunday morning at Mass and Sunday afternoon looking for women's college hoops games, "The Mighty Macs" is pretty much made for you. The question is, who, precisely, is it going to appeal to outside of that seemingly limited Venn diagram? Long shelved, the film tells the true story of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), who in 1971 took on a position as the basketball coach of the small Philadelphia Catholic women's school Sister Immaculata. Rush has no money, almost no support and is beset by disbelievers at every turn -- as the Mother Superior of the school-and-convent complex (Ellyn Burstyn) notes, "Do you think our girls will become athletes? I'll be happy if you just suppress their hormones."
The "Mighty Macs" did not merely go on to become athletes, but champions, winning three national titles under Rush, who Mr. Miyagis her young charges with speeches, drills and tough talk. And so both the team and Rush are forged, as if by a crucible, into stronger stuff than they started as, especially once Rush is helped by confused and searching young nun Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), who finds an unlikely crusade in assisting the team.
Directed by first-time feature director (and co-writer) Tim Chambers, "The Mighty Macs" is a standard-issue inspirational sports film, heavy on the talk. Rush's husband, Ed (David Boreanaz, with the sideburns of a man who did time for Nixon), is an NBA ref, and he starts resenting Cathy's devotion to her low-paying job, especially as her girls seem ambivalent about playing to win. She bites back at him, "It's not that they don't want it; it's that they've been told for so long that they can't have it that they can't even imagine wanting it." If this script were a game of basketball, bluntly, its passing game would be a little clunky.
At the same time, there are nice moments showing the nature of pre-Title IX sports, before the 1972 Supreme Court decision that leveled the playing field for female athletes financially. (At one point, the Mighty Macs play a gym so small that there's no courtside -- as they're told, "The walls are out of bounds.") Cinematographer Chuck Cohen shoots the film attractively enough, although the sports scenes are a bit wanting.
The script also doesn't fill in the girls on the team especially well: There's the one who works too much, the one who's already engaged, the one who's dirt-poor and saved from her overalls only by a team makeover. At first, the girls don't get why Rush is trying so hard, or even cares -- "She already has a husband, why does she need a job?" But of course, they come around. As for Gugino and Shelton, after several years of indie flicks where it seems like all they were asked to do was show up and show skin -- in films like "Women in Trouble," "Planet Terror," "Sin City" and more -- the piety and fully clothed nature of "The Mighty Macs" must have seemed like a nice change for them.
However, the dialogue is a little earnest, with Gugino quoting Corinthians, and the film leans too heavily on both voice-over and end-of-film title cards to fill us in on the story. "The Mighty Macs" falls into the lonely middle ground that so many true-life tales fall into: incredible enough to be captured in a film, but not made as exciting as the real-life events that inspired it. Again, the careful -- perhaps too careful -- mix of faith and forward passes will make "The Mighty Macs" an easy pick for people looking for something gently inspiring at the theater. Too bad it's simply not that good, wobbling up on its way to the backboard and rolling on the rim before eventually making its point when what we were hoping for was a slam dunk.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.