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Laura Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics

MOVIE REVIEW
12 Mighty Orphans (2021)

Was “12 Mighty Orphans” meant to be so howlingly funny? And doesn’t the fact that it clearly was not make it even funnier? Inspired by true events, we are in the depths of the Depression when Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson, who everyone forgets is from Texas), his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) and their cute little daughter arrive at the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas. Home to 150 orphans and run by Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight, who does everything the part requires with tremendous flair), the only kids that matter are the ones who end up on the fledging football team. Of those 12 boys, only six really have speaking parts, not that it matters who is who: You might as well call them Dashing, Angry, Weedy, Stammers, Peeper and Jolly. There’s also an assistant coach (Martin Sheen) who’s an alcoholic doctor perfectly called Doc and a knowing newspaperman (Rooster McConaughey) even more perfectly called Pop. It’s a damn shame Robert Duvall’s brief cameo part isn’t called Mac, but that would have been ridiculous.

In an admirable and inspiring achievement, director Ty Roberts has made a fine-looking cornball movie without a single original thought in its pretty little head. In the deathless tradition of “The Bad News Bears,” “The Mighty Ducks,” Major League,” “Hoosiers,” “Moneyball,” “Field of Dreams,” “McFarland USA,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” etc., a ragtag bunch of young losers must be inspired by their manly coach to play their sport and triumph over evil. There is a fey head coach for the villainous rivals (Lane Garrison, who co-wrote the script) and somehow there are even courtroom scenes, in which Rusty represents himself. There is a serious injury, a shameful secret revealed, arguments about Doc’s drinking, no shoes, kids who can’t read good and cute younger children being taken away from the orphanage causing everyone to get all sad. But if you’re still working on your cliché bingo card, there’s also unjust physical violence, important newspaper headlines, homemade uniforms and equipment, wifely support from Juanita in an apron, a motivational speech from a surprising character and repeated shots of the boys shouting, “I am valuable! I am a mighty orphan!” And it’s all overlaid with a voiceover by Mr. Sheen explaining the movie’s plot, setting and importance to us as if we’d been playing against DeMarcus Lawrence without a helmet.

The cinematography by David McFarland looks crisp and the production design by Drew Boughton makes the unpleasantness of the Depression clear without overwhelming modern children, so at least it’s easy to swallow. The fact that there are no black people, the Latino characters are sidelined and the women have nothing to do is weirdly absolutely fine. If anything interesting had been tried with Mr. Roberts, Mr. Garrison and Kevin Myer’s script that would have destroyed their frankly heroic commitment in these unprecedented times to leave no cliché behind. Mr. Wilson somehow doesn’t embarrass himself playing Rusty with a desperate sincerity – one of his locker-room speeches details a long list of insults from the rival team, before he widens his eyes and says, “That hurts my feelings” – although the intercutting of his World War I experiences with the football practice shots is so inappropriate it’s hysterical. When a nun shows up out of nowhere at the end, you know, why not. But for the cherry on top, ask yourself if President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Larry Pine) himself has an opinion about these fine young men? Is Jerry Jones a billionaire? You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh from start to finish. What a tremendously fun and brainless film.

PS: The fact that a movie which ignores its female characters this much still manages to pass the Bechdel test is so outstandingly cynical it can only be applauded.

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