Livin' the Dream
They can change their minds but they can’t change me. I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream.—Jim Croce, “I Got a Name”
How convenient that Vince Papale’s name lends itself to such rousing adjectivization. A 30-year-old part-time bartender when he started playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976, Papale’s story seems a movie that was just waiting to be made. In particular, a movie in the Bruckheimer-Disney triumphant sports saga mode, a movie starring Mark Wahlberg.
Wahlberg is the ideal guy for the earnest underdog part. His Vince—much like his Dirk Diggler (Boogie Nights) or his Tommy Corn (I Heart Huckabees)—keeps a kind of faith in himself, even though he’s been beaten down. When his barely seen wife (Lola Glaudini) leaves him within 10 minutes of the film’s start, he understands she’s angry at his lack of career, but he’s also “man enough” to trash his apartment in frustration and at least a little bit of righteous anger (the movie never even pretends to sympathize with the wife). His buddies down at the bar worry about his emotional health following the wife’s departure, but Vince keeps on, stoic and sturdy, much like his longsuffering widower dad (Kevin Conway). When he has to borrow rent money from Pops, though, the look on Vince’s face is decidedly pained. This isn’t the life he imagined for himself.
The one thing Vince does that resembles that dream is football. At night and on the weekends, he and the boys play in a beat-down field, surrounded by trash-littered streets and buildings with broken windows. Here Vince excels, slow motion action revealing not only his joy but also his capacity: a gifted, hardworking athlete, he takes hits and makes plays. Still, he’s daunted when the Eagles announce an open tryout, thinking for a minute he won’t go. But he does, because Invincible loves its clichés, and means to make you love them too.
Down at Veterans Stadium, Vince shows himself to be surprisingly adept, fast and tenacious, even though he played just a year of high school ball and none in college. He catches the attention of new coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), just arrived from UCLA and tasked with turning around a frankly dismal team (their previous season’s record: 4-10). One of Coach’s first decisions, according to the movie, is to solicit fans’ support through the tryouts. A slew of out-of-shape, know-it-all, beer-drinking devotees show up, along with Vince. Reluctant and even looking a little shy as he lines up with all the other much larger bodies, Vince focuses when his time comes. And his friends love him for it, seeing his selection to train with the team, in hopes of making wide receiver (as it turns out, special teams) as representing all of them, a little guy who makes good. (With 5’8 ½” Wahlberg playing the 6’2” Papale, he is literally little.)
The film sees it this way too, aligning Vince with his buddies certainly ((“You’re a freakin’ Eagle!” exults Tommy [underused Kirk Acevedo]), but also with his working class community. The camera repeatedly passes over Pops’ own picket line, to underline his commitment to the honorable union, the hard times of 1976, and yes, Vince’s good fortune. But even as Vince is able to rise up from his hand-to-mouth existence, he remains a man of the streets: when his friends want him to play a game one night before he’s scheduled to play at the Vet, he knows he shouldn’t but does anyway. The film layers on the slow motion glory in rain and mud, as Vince rediscovers his “identity” and (importantly) doesn’t get hurt.
Representing hardscrabble men, Vince is noble and tough at the same time, sensitive and resolute. This makes him different from Vermeil, a longtime and successful football professional (the only man to be named Coach of the Year at junior high, high school, college, and, eventually, professional levels), who doesn’t struggle to pay monthly bills. And yet, the film presents them as kindred spirits: each is taking a tremendous chance, trusting in the other to come through for him. The fact that the other players appear completely hostile toward Vince underscores their affinity.
Just so, the only time you see Vermeil at home is when his wife Carol (Paige Turco) worries out loud about what seems a “stunt,” tapping Vince to come to camp and maybe even make the team. She has a vested interest in his making his first season in the NFL a success, and playing “man of the people” doesn’t seem the likeliest way to make that happen. For the most part though, her questions only allow Vermeil to explain his thinking, as she’s a standard sports movie wife, supportive and patient, in the kitchen or in the stands, cheering for her man and the player he most frequently has his eye on, Vince Papale (this even as Coach insists, “I play no favorites”).
While the film’s primary relationship is plainly Vermeil and Papale’s, the film provides Vince with the usual sort of romance. He needs some female encouragement, considering that his wife not only stripped the apartment of furniture, but also left a scrap of paper on the floor on which she scrawled, “You’ll never go anywhere.” (Vince keeps the note in his locker, and reads it before he hits the field each day, to bolster his resolve.) The good girl is cousin to Max. Janet (Elizabeth Banks) is smart and beautiful, coming off her own broken relationship back in New York, and a Giants fan. What counts here is Janet’s love of the game, not to mention her grasp of stats: she understands and respects Vince’s desire to make the team, so when he can’t quite articulate his desire for her, she’s patient and compassionate, the perfect football player’s girl.
It’s nice that Janet is so accommodating, but not nearly so compelling as the film’s version of Papale’s work on the field. Overcoming the scorn of his teammates (cocky young receivers, ferocious and focused defenders), he persists even when his too-old body and lack of knowledge make his progress look doubtful. But you know it’s not doubtful. The hard-charging practice and game scenes take you onto the field and slam you into large, shoulder-padded men. Invincible takes its name seriously.