I didn't fall into the target demographic for Invincible: I wasn't a football fan and never quite understood all the fuss about Mark Wahlberg. A guy sitting next to me at the screening was an avid fan of both ... and fell asleep 20 minutes into the film. After the movie, he pronounced the movie "slow, until the ending." I may have enjoyed Invincible more than he did, but a big part of that had to do with a newly discovered enjoyment of watching Wahlberg on a very superficial level.
It was a surprise to me to find Wahlberg actually, well, attractive. I didn't like his performance in The Italian Job -- he had the onscreen presence of a block of wood -- although he was more tolerable in Three Kings. (People keep telling me I should see Boogie Nights, and one of these days I'll listen to them.) Wahlberg seems to improve as he grows older; the lines in his face add character and interest, and he looks more like an actual person. He's well-cast and believable in Invincible as South Philly football hero Vince Papale. Even the shaggy Seventies haircut suits him. (I've never seen the real-life Papale so I can't tell if there's an actual resemblance.)
In fact, I believe that the filmmakers were well aware of Marky Mark's attractiveness in Invincible and worked hard to boost it even more when possible. I recall at least one scene where the camera lingers on a back view of Wahlberg while he's out running, providing us with a nice view. Those Seventies tight pants help too. And then there's that scene in the mud. I discovered that Wahlberg is one of those actors who looks best when he's covered in mud, or sweat, or is generally scruffy.
Vince Papale in Invincible is your basic underdog character with that once-in-a-Hollywood-film chance to make it big. When the movie starts, he's an unemployed teacher who works as a bartender to make ends meet. His wife leaves him because she decides he'll never amount to anything. His blue-collar friends encourage him to attend an open tryout for Philadelphia Eagles players, even though he never played college ball, and he catches the eye of the new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear). Every week, he's sure his limited time with the team will end, but will it? And what's going on with Papale and Janet (Elizabeth Banks), the cute female bartender who's a diehard New York Giants fan?
Papale's story, set in 1976, is occasionally intercut with scenes of striking workers in Philadelphia, and one of his friends acts pretty glum about the strike. The subplot is never resolved, other than that his friend cheers up because of Papale's good fortune. The audience gets the impression that the workers would be a whole lot happier if not for those pesky unions and their strikes, and that the joy of the Philadelphia Eagles succeeding as a football team will counterbalance the woes of unemployment, post-Vietnam depression, and alcoholism. Unfortunately, since the movie has no real subplots, Papale's story is stretched thin over the 100-minute film, and the film drags as a result. I would have enjoyed a stronger subplot about Papale's dad, for example. I did like the recurring business with the note from Papale's ex-wife; I thought that was a nice insight into his character.
Invincible manages to maintain some suspense about the outcome -- that is, if you don't know the real-life story, or if you aren't cynically sure that the movie will have an upbeat ending. In the Seventies, when this movie was set, a sports movie might end with the team losing or the sports figure suddenly stricken with an accident or disease that he/she must overcome in inspiring ways. In 2006, watching a formulaic Disney sports film, advertised as being "from the producers who brought you The Rookie," it's not difficult to predict what will eventually happen.
I wish I had brought a football fan friend with me to Invincible, because I would have been interested to hear opinions about the way in which the football games were shot. The first scene in the film, a neighborhood scratch game, is shot so confusingly that I could not always tell which guy was which, not even Papale. I assume we're supposed to get an idea of what a good player Papale is, but it was such a speeded-up, handheld-camera tangle of sweaty guys (that sounds way more interesting than it was) that I just felt lost. The same technique is used during Papale's first pro game, and while we can spot Papale more easily, the action still seems confusing and muddled. In later games, the film switches to slow motion for most of the action, which at least gives us a clearer idea of what's going on.
As much as I enjoyed watching Wahlberg, I was disappointed by Greg Kinnear, whom I usually like (particularly in Sabrina and Mystery Men). As Dick Vermeil, he has little to do other than to stand around mouthing stereotypical coach-like platitudes. Physically, he looks terrible -- the character is supposed to be tired and stressed, but at times Kinnear looked downright jaundiced. It's a role anyone could have played, possibly in their sleep, and Kinnear looks as though he was awakened in the middle of the night to walk through it.
Janet, the bartender with a heart of gold and a brain full of football stats, is practically a reprise of Cameron Diaz's title role in There's Something about Mary. Obviously, the perfect woman is a sweet little blonde who loves sports. Elizabeth Banks is appropriately cute, although her character never seemed quite believable. I liked Kevin Conway as Papale's dad, and wish we'd seen more of him in the film. The rest of Papale's friends are nearly indistinguishable.
Invincible uses a lot of Seventies popular music in the first half of the film, mostly to good effect. 1976 was one of the first years when I was old enough to hear and remember songs on the radio, so the music triggered a wave of nostalgia. Unfortunately, during the climactic scenes, the songs are replaced by very standard background music that tries to heighten the suspense and action, and which reminded me that I was watching a typical sports drama.
As far as sports films go, Invincible doesn't offer anything original or notable ... except Wahlberg's performance. And, let's face it, Wahlberg's appearance. If you're the kind of person who can get through long lulls in the storyline by appreciating an actor's physical charms, Invincible might well be worth seeing.