Sentiment -- Not Sentimentality

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The Thundering Herd lifts head coach Jack Lengyel, played by Matthew McConaughey, on their shoulders in celebration in Warner Brothers Pictures’ new movie, “We Are Marshall.”

The most dangerous moment in popular movie-making occurs when honest sentiment shades over into dishonest sentimentality. It is, for example, dismaying to see terminally ill patients in movies remaining perky and life-affirming right up until the moment they die. And worse,showing no physical or emotionally ill effects — no pallor, emaciation or, for that matter, anger or fear — as they approach life's end.

It is therefore a pleasure to say something nice about Venus, in which lanky, scrawny, Peter O'Toole, playing an aging actor named Maurice, just plain refuses to acknowledge the fact that he's not feeling so hot. He keeps working such modest jobs as come his way, keeps ragging on his pal Ian (Leslie Phillips), who is less sickly, but more prone to aches, pains and complaints, and mostly undertakes the education — actually we'd better make that the civilization — of the eponymous Venus (Jodie Whittaker, a young actress making an utterly fearless debut). She's Ian's grandniece, up from the provinces and supposed to be tending the old guy — cooking, cleaning, giving him an arm to lean on. She's hopeless at all these tasks, and a potty-mouthed layabout besides. Nevertheless , Maurice takes a mentoring shine to her, perhaps seeing in her something of himself, independent and instinctive. He finds her a job (posing nude for an art class), takes her to the theater, even lets her accompany him on a film location, in the process dragging her out of her shell of ignorance and indifference.

Does Maurice love her? Of course he does. Does he keep his affections avuncular? Yes, he does — though he's not uninterested in peering through the transom when she sheds her clothes at the life-drawing class. Is O'Toole — skinny, tottering, eccentric in everything from costume to line-readings — wonderful in this role? Indeed he is. Always more of an odd duck than a leading man, age (he's 74) has given him license to play his essential weirdness and it precludes us from feeling the slightest bit sorry for him as illness chips away at — but never conquers — his bonhomie. It just sort of happens to him, and Venus just sort of sees him through it, without pitying him — or leaving us awash in tears either. The script by Hanif Kireishi is witty without being self-consciously so, and Roger Michell's direction has a nice awareness of middle-class London, clinging to its dignity but just a little bit tatty around the edges. You leave the movie hoping against hope that you will be able to manage a similar ending — tart, gallant, without self-pity. Venus is inspirational in the best sense of the word.

So, in its way, is We Are Marshall, which deals with a much larger tragedy. In 1970, a small college's entire football team (save a couple of players left behind because of injuries) was wiped out in an airplane crash as it returned home from a loss on the road. The devastation that wrought on a small school and a small town, both of which pretty much lived and died with the successes and failures of its sports teams, was huge and seemingly irreparable. Many, possibly most, of the students and fans wanted to shut down the program, the better to concentrate on mourning. But they reckoned without the team's survivors, who rallied their spirits, and without the doubting but eventually doughty college president (David Straithairn), who has to find a coach and, incidentally, talk the NCAA into letting Marshall play freshmen (which was against the rules in those days). Mostly they reckoned without Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the last (possibly only) choice for the job and a guy with a winning — in both senses of the word — spirit. His record at Marshall was not great (9-31), but in his first year he did manage to win his first home game against a bigger, stronger opponent. More important, with his indefatigable can-do spirit, he and his outgunned team restored something better than pride to a terribly damaged community; they restored it to normalcy, to winning some and losing some, to just hanging in there the way we all have to do.

The movie makes it clear that nothing spectacular happened at Marshall. It took "The Thundering Herd" something like a decade before they consistently won more games than they lost in a season. Nobody became a famous coach or gridiron immortal in the wake of the tragedy the team endured. The film's script (by Jamie Linden) makes it clear that a few people never did buy into Lengyel's gung-ho ways, and the director (McG), for the most part keeps the rah-rah spirit in decent check. This is a nicely muted comeback story — definitely not Rocky Balboa in shoulder pads — and it is the better for that restraint. Maybe We Are Marshall is not quite a thinking man's sports tale, but, on the other hand, you don't have to be a moron to enjoy it.