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‘Mighty Macs’ a corny underdog

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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"The Mighty Macs’’ sticks so closely to the underdog-sports-movie playbook that it’s practically generic. In 1971, a fresh-faced Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) was hired to coach the women’s basketball team at tiny Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. The gym had recently burned down and the school was on the verge of being sold; nevertheless, in her debut season Rush took her girls all the way to the first-ever national championship in the sport.

Inspirational tales rarely come this movie-ready, and the formula is foolproof. Agreeably hokey and professionally made, “The Mighty Macs’’ works on the most basic, button-pushing level of emotional engagement, but director Tim Chambers still doesn’t take any chances. He coats the film in a golden veneer of nostalgia, cranks up William Ross’s glutinous score, and avails himself of every cliche that isn’t nailed down.

The reluctant assistant coach searching for rehabilitation? In “Hoosiers’’ it was an alcoholic Dennis Hopper. In the defiantly G-rated “Mighty Macs,’’ it’s Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a young novitiate who doubts her path, asks God for a sign - and immediately hears the coach’s whistle from the practice room beneath the chapel.

The gifted athlete struggling with family poverty? Meet Trish (a very good Katie Hayek). The callow Queen Bee in need of a reality check? That would be Lizanne (Kim Blair, who gets off one of the least believable crying jags in recent memory). The scowling school administrator who threatens to fire the coach for her unorthodox ways but turns out to have a heart of mush? Ladies and gentlemen, Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn as Mother St. John.

The heart-stirring pep talks, the sudden-death overtime, the overcaffeinated play-by-play announcer, the slow-motion that kicks in as the climactic ball sails toward the basket: they’re all here. And nuns. Lots of nuns. “The Mighty Macs’’ shares with last year’s far better “Secretariat’’ an acknowledgement of the changes that conventional young women - and here the convent is literal - had to force on men in the early 1970s. Cathy struggles to convince her NBA referee husband (David Boreanaz) that her dream matters as much as his, and the comical cheering squad of sisters in the stands is in marked contrast to the humorless old men who control the school’s destiny.

When it comes to matters of the church, “Mighty Macs’’ is as old-fashioned as they come; I kept expecting Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby to pop out of the vestments room and start doing layups. That’s fine; they don’t make movies often enough for the audience that will best appreciate this one. But is it too much to ask that they make them better - less obvious, more open to honest emotions rather than pre-packaged ones?

The script by Chambers and Anthony L. Gargano is especially shameless, with a stirring monologue every 30 feet and a groaner every 10. Note to the filmmakers: Following a line of dialogue like “Sometimes angels wear high heels’’ with “That’s the corniest thing I’ve ever heard!’’ doesn’t make it any less corny. It just proves you knew you could do better.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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THE MIGHTY MACS Directed by: Tim Chambers

Written by: Chambers and Anthony L. Gargano

Starring: Carla Gugino, Marley Shelton, David Boreanaz, Ellen Burstyn

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: G

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