Set in the world of collegiate intramural flag football, Balls Out begins with a character, hit hard on a game-winning play, “paralyzed from the balls down.” The line conjures a worst-case scenario for the audience: the film as a relentless torrent of sleazy frat-house humor. But Balls Out is more of a suffocating indulgence of the earnest spoofery of films such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, with its characters hyper-aggressively winking at us about the script’s meta-textual intentions. In a rare exception that resists explicitly calling the audience’s attention to the film’s parodic elements, a running thread has two “second-year seniors” (Jay Pharoah and D.C. Pierson) sitting alone in the stands at each flag football contest and providing running commentary just for themselves—a sly dig at blowhard game announcers who may as well be bloviating solely to hear the sound of their own voices.
The story turns on Caleb Fuller (Jake Lacy), engaged to a daddy’s girl head case (Kate McKinnon) and primed for a law career he doesn’t necessarily want, getting his old flag football team back together as an avenue for emotional escape. He also meets the requisite “right girl,” Meredith (Nikki Reed), who merely exists as Caleb’s prize for finding the wherewithal to ditch the life he obviously doesn’t want. It’s a cliché string of events worthy of lampooning, and yet the filmmakers play it oddly straight; the sincerity with which the trajectory is depicted struggles to cohere with the more absurd tenor of the film’s take on the nature of sports and sportsmanship. Meredith’s brother, Dick (Beck Bennett), Caleb’s foremost flag football rival, is more sensibly rendered. Embodying the essence of a prototypical sports-movie villain, Bennett astutely employs Dick’s relentless mania to demonstrate how his arrogant exterior is nothing more than an obnoxiously frantic mask for his insecurities.
Inevitably, Caleb and Dick’s teams square off in the final big game, and this entire face-off comes across deliberately irrelevant. So often, sports movies peddle the notion that winning isn’t everything, while their over-inflated last-act showdowns unmindfully function to reinforce the notion that it is. Balls Out, however, reveals itself as a sports movie actually attuned to the knowledge that victory in an inconsequential game bears no meaning. The climactic pre-game speech delivered by Caleb is really more of an anti-climax, the punchline to the film as a shaggy-dog story. “This,” he passively explains, “might be our last shot at something that doesn’t matter.”