Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.
It’s understandable that not many outlets reviewed Balls Out. After some festival dates in 2014 under the name Intramural, the film was retitled, outfitted with one of those later-period National Lampoon-style posters featuring a close-up shot of a woman’s ass that doesn’t correspond to an actual character in the movie, and given a modest, regional release in the spring of 2015. It would be a stretch to call the movie a hidden gem; though it’s far less fratty than its bare-bones marketing suggests, it has a retrograde campus-comedy vibe, right down to the Orion Pictures logo that resurfaces in front of the movie.
But Andrew Disney’s sports spoof shares with some of its better ’80s and ’80s-style predecessors a genial likability to accompany its hit-and-miss jokes. It is knowingly, blissfully low-stakes in setting up a rivalry between a ragtag crew of intramural flag-football players led by Caleb (Jake Lacy) and a squad of aggro frat boys led by Dick (Beck Bennett from Saturday Night Live). Caleb’s team of freshmen triumphs in the opening minutes, only to be broken apart by tragedy. The team gets back together as fifth-year seniors, hoping to reclaim the sense of fun and promise they felt as slightly younger men. They once again face off against Dick and his intramural soldiers, and are helped along by a teammate (Nick Kocher) with a strong working knowledge of underdog sports movies.
To the extent that Balls Out concerns itself with anything but goofing on those movies, it positions itself as a stand against encroaching adulthood by giving Caleb an inexplicable and horrible girlfriend (Kate McKinnon, also from SNL) who mistakes his passive indifference for firm commitment. As with her sketch-comedy work, McKinnon is funny and committed, but the character is such a steamroller that her dating Caleb never makes more than an iota of sense, even as parody. But the general abdication of adult responsibility has an early Bill Murray quality, even if the movie doesn’t possess a Murray-level performance.
Lacking a commanding star and rich in smaller comic turns, Balls Out works best when it jumps headlong into slapstick lunacy, which it does with just enough frequency that the wilder gags don’t lose their capacity to surprise. Bennett is especially funny as a flag-footballer so alpha that he systematically beats every one of his teammates in a show of dominance, even when they’ve just scored. Jay Pharoah (one more SNLer for good measure) and D.C. Pierson are also on hand as narrating sportscasters—which is to say, stoners who sit in the bleachers, offering intramural play-by-plays for an audience of only each other. It’s a nice touch for a movie that traffics in facsimile, shot with a late-’90s color richness that looks like a Saturday Night Live music video. The movie may not have more laughs than a mini-marathon of sketch comedy, but it’s funnier than any number of mainstream comedies that get wide-release treatment.
Availability: Balls Out is available to purchase from the major digital outlets.