The cast assembled for this parody of underdog sports stories keeps Balls Out amusing through its tedious plot.
Sports and sports movies often lend themselves to self-aggrandizement. For professional athletes, it’s understandable: they’ve demonstrated an ability to perform their selected skill at a higher level than nearly every other human being on the planet. The same cannot be said for the amateur athlete. Despite that, the spillover effect of sports-star-cockiness infects regular gym rats everywhere, instilling self-important bros with brash bravado. Dreams of highly celebrated athletic achievements get reduced to victories in flag football scrimmages.
With Balls Out, Director Andrew Disney collects an assortment of upcoming sketch and improv stars to satirize the predictable sports underdog movie subgenre, while deflating the egos of anyone who has ever played backyard sports. Caleb (Jake Lacy) and his college friends attempt to recapture the magic that lead to their winning the intramural flag football championship in their freshman year. Caleb hasn’t seen any of the group since throwing the championship-winning pass that crippled his teammate Grant (Nick Kocher). But in his 5th year at 4-year college, with both marriage and a career on the horizon, Caleb throws himself back into “something that doesn’t matter” by reuniting the old team.
Like the 2004 Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn vehicle DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, Balls Out seeks to undermine the genre by re-appropriating its tropes to an inherently insignificant situation. Balls Out goes one step further than its more mainstream predecessor by frequently and openly calling attention to its own story beats. When a wheelchair-bound Grant returns to the flag football team, he acknowledges his own shift to a gruff persona in order to assume the role of the team’s vulgar, grizzled coach/mentor. He melodramatically narrates the training montage, barks nonsensical orders and refers to his team as a ragtag bunch in hopes of inspiring their success.
That irreverent approach both helps and hurts Balls Out in different moments. The film is dense with scattershot punch lines. While not all of them land, the hit-to-miss ratio is solid enough to remain entertaining during the stretches when the film doesn’t take itself seriously. Balls Out might find its gang of roller-rink-dwelling homeless men funnier than I do; however, with a cast featuring Saturday Night Live contributors (Kate McKinnon, Beck Bennett, Nicholas Rutherford and Jay Pharoah), the BritaNick team (Kocher and Brian McElhaney), as well as a Derrick Comedy alum (D.C. Pierson) the comedic ability sells a majority of the jokes.
The satirical throughline is largely absent from Balls Out’s superfluous romantic subplot with the ever-charming Nikki Reed. Whereas the majority of this comedy lampoons clichéd story beats, this section to Balls Out could have just as easily been lifted into a movie starring Katherine Heigl and James Marsden. Both Lacy and Reed provide an affable presence, but their relationship is so clearly forecasted in the script that there’s little reason to care whenever her character is in a scene. Likewise, at 100 minutes long, the film could have probably lost a couple of its strikingly shot but minimally funny flag football montages.
Often, Balls Out is just pleasant enough. Its hilarious cast and the frequency of its laughs offer the movie a kind of lazy weekend VOD appeal, but its story lacks the ingenuity necessary to invest in these characters. The performances are the main reason to check out the film, if only to see some of these funny faces before they become staples of the next generation of comedy (scene stealer Kate McKinnon is already a female lead in Paul Feig’s upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot). Balls Out’s giggle inducing send up of sports movies is absurd fun, but its boilerplate plot is stretched transparently thin.