1. The thing about making an underdog sports movie is that you have to base the story in something other than what you'd find in an underdog sports movie. "The Rookie" is ostensibly a story about a guy in his late 30s who makes it to the major leagues, but if the movie were just about that, you'd be bored halfway through: It's really about a devoted family man trying to balance his dreams with the realities of the life and family he values. "Hoosiers" is about an unlikely Indiana state high school basketball champion, but it's really about a damaged, stubborn man finding himself in a community that needed him as much as he needed it. "The Mighty Macs" has an inspirational story, and that's all it has. Underdog stories are just the first hurdle; there's more to come after you clear that one. "The Mighty Macs" is an underdog sports movie and that's it. It thinks it's the only one. It's almost cute.
2. The real life story behind "The Mighty Macs" is a good one. Tiny Immaculata College in Pennsylvania is close to shutting down because of budget restraints, but for reasons the movie doesn't get into, it decides to host a cheapo basketball team. Bored sitting around the house waiting for her NBA referee husband to come home, Cathy Rush, a former women's basketball player, volunteers to gather a group of girls together and field a team. The movie then hits every beat, the rest of the way, that you think it's going to. The school doesn't have any money for the team. The administration thinks Rush is too unconventional. The girls don't want to play. Rush's husband tells her to quit. The team gets destroyed in every game. The coach gives a big speech. The players start to buy in. The team starts to win. The administration and Rush's husband come around. There is a big tournament. Every hoary cliche in the book is not just touched upon, but snuggled up with for the night. I'm fairly certain that, now that I've described the "plot," you could predict every scene of "The Mighty Macs," and you could probably even put them in the right order.
3. There was a real Cathy Rush, and she's kind of awesome. But I hope her life was more complicated than it is in this movie, and I know she's a better coach than this. The Coach Rush of "The Mighty Macs" is a Coachspeak Automaton. Her "coaching" mostly consists of yelling "defense!" and "Protect the basket!" and "Move your feet!" a lot. She's a collection of coach tropes, which is odd, because when we first meet her, much is made out of the fact that she has never coached basketball before. Well, that's impressive, since pretty much from minute one she's a combination of Gene Hackman, Bob Knight, Vince Lombardi and Mr. Miyagi. She also learned coaching from inspirational posters in the doctor's office: "Have the courage to follow your dreams." "Dreams are for everybody. All you need is heart." "You have to believe in yourself. You have the strength to do anything." "How much are you willing to sacrifice?" Somehow, "Hang In There" missed the cut, though it's possible I just didn't notice it.
4. Carla Gugino, perhaps happy just to not be 19th billed, is a perfectly acceptable Rush, tough and determined even when spouting every empty coach phrase in the book. Ellen Burstyn even shows up as the Mother Superior at the school, and it's to the credit of a great ole actress like Burstyn that she makes it through all of this with her dignity well intact. The nuns who run the school, actually, are the most fun part of "The Mighty Macs." The film doesn't get much into their faith -- they're more cute movie nuns than devout, stringent, real-world nuns -- but I'll confess that if you are unable to resist a group of nuns chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" from the sidelines during a close basketball game, you are a stronger person than I am.
5. Unfortunately, the players are just as rote as their coach's cliches; I couldn't tell most of them apart, other than that one wants to get married and one is sad because her boyfriend broke up with her and one ... you know, those two might have been the same person. There's a nice inspirational message for young girls in this movie, and boy does this movie hit it hard. The treacly music begins within the first two minutes, and it never stops. I'd recommend young girls looking for athletic inspiration watch "Bend It Like Beckham" or "A League Of Their Own" again; those movies base their stories on the world outside sports, and then allow sports to elevate them. Or, better yet: Just go listen to Cathy Rush talk herself. That's something truly inspirational. I didn't hate "The Mighty Macs," because a movie this earnest is pretty difficult to hate. But that's not enough, I'm afraid.