Wildcats is supposed to be about a woman coaching high school football but it ends up being an unintentionally thorough examination of patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. There’s a lot to unpack; more, actually, than its worth. Because Wildcats isn’t just a failure of a female empowerment picture, it’s also a failure of a White savior picture. Things with Chicago’s “Central High”’s football team haven’t been going well in general—the previous season’s star quarterback quit school to become a criminal and the same bunch of guys who couldn’t get their act together on the team are back again this year because they all are repeating because they’re dumb. Oh, it’s also classist. The team is mostly Black guys, who talk mid-eighties R-rated Black guy jive as written by a White guy (meaning it’s rarely funny, even if the actor’s able to be funny), a handful of Hispanic stereotypes (including the guy translating for the other guy because it’s a sitcom special), and Woody Harrelson. The one thing the team has in common besides being in their early-to-mid-twenties is they hate the idea of a female coach.
So it’s a problem with the only willing football coach the principal can find is Goldie Hawn. See, she asked if she could coach the Junior Varsity team and after saying yes, admittedly good but utterly cartoonish villain Bruce McGill went and gave the job to a gay guy. Wildcats is at its most interesting eighties movie when there’s the homophobia against the gay guy but then the gay guy joins with the other guys in the room for some misogyny. It’s like Wildcats thinks, while telling this story about Hawn ostensibly having her White Savior story arc, having a woman coach the boys’ football team isn’t going to have to make a comment on toxic masculinity. No, it doesn’t, of course; the film doesn’t go there. Ezra Sacks’s screenplay is profoundly bland. But it doesn’t even recognize the position its putting itself in.
Of course, it also fails the White savior story arc because… Hawn’s a woman. She’s not empowered enough to be a White savior. The first act hints at trying it a bit, but then Sacks and director Ritchie’s utter disinterest in any kind of authentic narrative pushes it aside. But if you remember back, during the end of the second act and the first half of the third, it’s stunning to think the movie might have gone for that much of an arc for Hawn. Instead, Hawn’s arc is just finding the right group of men. And once you find the right group of men, well, you can convince the other men out there to acknowledge you. And if you can’t, there’s always punching. But the right men will do it.
It’s like Hawn’s supposed to be the lead of the movie but the movie doesn’t need her. Not just as the coach of the football team—because once they’re over her being a girl it’s all training montages and original soundtrack singles and the games fly by—but as the lead. The opening credits are home movies of Hawn as a child (well, Hawn’s character presumably) and her history with football. Dad was a player or a coach. Maybe both. Doesn’t matter, because Hawn’s history with football and ability as a football coach have nothing to do with the movie. They’re nonsense details. The movie would be no different if Hawn got the job through a clerical error.
Sacks’s script goes with every predictable plot turn—once ex-husband James Keach (who’s not good but perfectly cast as an upper class prig) starts threatening to take Hawn’s kids away from her, anyway. Before Keach comes into the movie it’s just Hawn and the montages and then her trying to get the ex-star quarterback to give up crime for football, which is kind of more likable because even with the bad script you don’t dislike the actors and you wish the script were better for them. With Keach… well, he brings in new girlfriend Jan Hooks, who’s a punching bag for gags (an example of the film’s passive versus active misogyny), but it also gives Robyn Lively more to do. She’s the older daughter. She’s not very good. Her part’s terribly written, Ritchie could give a hoot about directing the actors, but she’s not very good.
So, Keach drags the film down, directly and indirectly. Especially when you get into how badly Sacks writes anything related to White privilege. Like the toxic masculinity, you can tell he notices it and sees it might not be good, but then pushes those thoughts down and acts like it’s okay to have rapey jokes about Hawn from students, as well as Black principal Nipsey Russell get threatened by rich school’s teacher McGill and whatever else I’m forgetting, and to just go with it. There’s one part where the team destroys Hawn’s office and faces no consequence because, well, she needs motivation; she’s a woman after all.
It’s a lot. There’s a lot. And even if you’re willing to forgive a solid amount because it was the eighties, the movie itself still flops around and then fizzles by the end. Ritchie and Sacks not caring about football ends up limiting what they can come up with the final game. The big showdown between Hawn and her nemesis gets hijacked by fat jokes. And Ritchie shooting a bunch of solo inserts of Hawn’s reaction shots to the game when she should be, I don’t know, coaching or something. It’s a really oddly directed movie football game. It’s poorly directed, but also oddly directed.
Though the football games are the only thing Richard A. Harris can edit acceptably. Every other cut in the movie’s a little off. Ritchie has this boring one-shot he always goes with from close-ups and Harris can never figure out how to cut it, even though Ritchie seems to have given him enough coverage.
It’s like no one cared.
James Newton Howard’s score is bad.
Donald E. Thorin’s photography is adequate.
The best technical contribution is Marion Dougherty, who casted. The team is mostly solid, performance-wise, when they need to be. They don’t do great at being assholes, but once they’re okay being coached by a woman, they’re fine. Wesley Snipes has maybe the showiest part, he’s okay. Mykelti Williamson’s okay. Not a good part, but he’s okay.
M. Emmet Walsh’s got a small role and you wish they’d gotten someone else for it, just because it’s Walsh and you want to like him and there’s no reason to like him in Wildcats. Like much of the film, he’s pointless. Sacks’s script doesn’t have anything for its performers. Not good speeches, not good scenes, not good arcs. No one even gets an arc. Not really.
Until Keach comes in strong—which is well over half-way in–Wildcats seems like it’s going to make it to the finish. Not great, not even good, but passable enough. Hawn’s charm can carry a whole lot. And given the movie is supposed to be her movie but instead Ritchie and Sacks do everything they can not to make it her movie, she gets some added sympathy. But that third act is the pits.
Directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Ezra Sacks; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Richard A. Harris; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Anthea Sylbert; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Goldie Hawn (Molly), James Keach (Frank), Mykelti Williamson (Bird), Nipsey Russell (Edwards), Bruce McGill (Darwell), Robyn Lively (Alice), Brandy Gold (Marian), Swoosie Kurtz (Verna), Wesley Snipes (Trumaine), Tab Thacker (Finch), Woody Harrelson (Krushinski), Jsu Garcia (Cerulo), Jan Hooks (Stephanie), Willie J. Walton (Marvel), Rodney Hill (Peanut), and M. Emmet Walsh (Coes).