‘The Winning Season’ Is the Sleeper Feel-Good Comedy of the Season

Last night, I returned home after a very long and very trying day. All I wanted was to do was order Thai food and curl up in front of the tube with a less-than demanding movie and my comfy socks. I went with The Winning Season, written and directed by James C. Strouse, because I’d seen and loved Strauss’s screenwriting debut, Lonesome Jim, an indie slacker comedy directed by Steve Buscemi and starring Casey Affleck as a hard-on-his-luck wannabe writer who moves back in with his parents in Indiana after his brother tries and fails to commit suicide. Affleck’s character is forced to coach a girls basketball team while his brother recovers. Funny stuff happens. He smokes crack with his uncle, learns to deal with premature ejaculation, and eventually falls in love with Liv Tyler. The Winning Season is also about women’s basketball and features a slacker hero coach – this time played by the excellent Sam Rockwell – who drinks too much, says un-PC things, and eventually learns what love is. But if this all sounds too ugly-duckling-turned-beautiful-swan, it’s not.

Or rather, it both is and isn’t, in a good way. The film’s obvious precursor is the original 70’s-era Bad News Bears, which starred a young-ish Walter Matthau as an alcoholic Little League coach who drunk drives with his players in the car, freely spouts racial epithets, smokes on the field, makes comments about an eleven-year-old girl’s breasts, and buys the team beer to celebrate the season’s end.

I’d always thought a movie like BNB could never get made in an era of censorship by market value, when the closest we get to a bad-boy coach is Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks, or, worse, Billy Bob Thrornton’s toned-down version of the Matthau character in the recent BNB remake. But The Winning Season is filled with both poignant and hilarious gray-area moments, like when a seventeen-year-old player accuses Rockwell of hitting on her, and Rockwell explains that she’s not his type because he prefers women with big breasts and “onion butt,” or when he falls off the wagon, sloppily makes moves on a waitress, and ends up with a drunk driving arrest. The film’s ending does err towards the heart-warming, what with a father/daughter reconciliation and three hearty cheers for the by then semi-reformed coach, but by that point you’re so in love with Rockwell and his band of misfits that you can’t help but want everything to be alright. In fact, it’s this film’s unique balance between dark art house flick and uplifting sports film that probably sank its box office hopes; these days, films have to be easily categorizable. The Winning Season isn’t gritty enough to fit the Half Nelson mold, nor is it cheesy enough to be the next Little Giants. The film is still playing in some theaters and can be purchased On Demand for a low price. Give it a look if you get a chance. If anything, it’s good to see a new comedy that doesn’t involve Judd Apatow.

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