Baseball is an amazing game, isn’t it? In addition to being the only sport in which the defense controls the ball, it’s also a team competition made up of a series of mano-a-mano showdowns. While it moves slowly, its dramas are intimate. There’s also the smell of oiled leather and fresh-cut grass. The call of the hotdog vendor. How, in an instant, the central piece of equipment can become a souvenir. Maybe that’s why so many movies have used baseball to tell thrilling, poignant tales of boys, men and the paper-thin line that separates the two. Of course, in The Benchwarmers, that line involves 10-year-olds cussing like old pros while grown men behave like spoiled grade-schoolers.
Gus is a genuine baseball talent who has been reduced to mowing people’s lawns. Why? We think it’s because he was an outcast who never got a shot at playing with the big boys. So when he witnesses a team of little leaguers behaving cruelly towards “nerds,” he steps in and challenges the cruel jocks to a pick-up game: their whole team versus him and his two athletically impaired buddies, Clark (Jon Heder as a more likably geeky, preadolescent version of his mythic Napoleon Dynamite) and Richie (the sarcastic David Spade as a video store clerk whose albino brother is too paranoid to leave a closet).
Almost single-handedly, Gus sends the cocky kids packing with a blazing fastball and a barrage of home runs. His exploits attract attention. It turns out the father of one of the nerds he rescued is a billionaire familiar with the pain of being left out of America’s pastime. So he creates “Mel’s Tournament of Little Baseballers and Three Older Guys” as a chance for payback. Gus, Clark and Richie proceed to compete against all of the stuck-up, nastily coached squads in the county, with the winners promised a new stadium.
Gus intervenes on behalf of a helpless boy being abused by his peers. Clark is adamant about not lying. There’s a warning not to eat too much fast food. Aware that he’s carrying the team on his back, Gus finds ways to get Clark and Richie more involved in the game, which gives them a greater sense of self-worth. The three-man squad known as The Benchwarmers becomes a source of hope for nerds everywhere who appreciate being represented. Convinced that “everyone should be allowed to play baseball and have fun,” the guys warm the bench, turning over the championship game to a young group of fellow rejects needing its own shot at redemption.
During a TV interview, Gus tells bullies in the audience, “Messin’ with other kids can do a lot of damage.” [Spoiler Warning] We learn that Gus has experienced that first hand, not as a young target, but as an oppressor whose abuse landed a fellow grade-schooler in an institution many years earlier. He has been plagued with guilt and carried around that dark secret ever since. Deeply regretting his immature actions, Gus seeks out the man (a little person living a reclusive existence) to apologize. When Gus’ secret is made public and his nerdy fan base rejects him, the victim comes to his tormentor’s defense and encourages others to forgive him, too (“Life is too short to harbor hatred”). The mean kids get the message, staging a mutiny against their immature coaches out of respect for their rivals.
A fan of fantasy role-playing games tries to cast a spell on Gus. Creepy goths condemn Gus’ soul to the depths of hell.
Gus’ wife carefully monitors her ovulation and schedules when they need to be intimate. Clark and Richie both kiss attractive blondes. Other sexuality in the film is downright perverse. At the video store, Richie is in the habit of recommending DVDs that feature lesbian sex scenes. A beefy coach pals around with an effeminate masseur who is usually shown wearing only a Speedo. Virginity earns contempt, and a disrespectful boy tells Richie the only “action” he’ll ever see involves an inflatable sex toy.
Bullies knock a boy to the ground, hold him down and humiliate him by passing gas in his face. The boy later gives an abuser a taste of his own medicine. An angry man knocks the head off a mannequin. Clark has difficulty holding onto the bat, resulting in a broken car windshield, three dead squirrels and a jogger getting hit in the head. Numerous other sports-related mishaps involve players getting spiked, kicked, clocked in the head with balls or running into walls. One kid gets absolutely hammered by a line-drive to the chest. A fly ball crushes a beetle (Clark licks the gooey remains off the ball).
A dog is shaved by a wayward lawn mower. A rock fired from a mower hits Richie in the groin. It is implied that a boy was pelted with dung. Kids give their mean coach a wedgie. As a training exercise, Gus, Clark and Richie bash mailboxes from their posts with bats as they drive down a residential street (one of several foolish or irresponsible acts depicted as cool and begging to be imitated).
In addition to more than 20 profanities (including s-words and anatomical slang), the dialogue is loaded with off-color cracks about retardation, virginity, feces, flatulence, urination, mucous, diarrhea, penis size and feminine hygiene products. Bullies of all ages verbally assault the meek, often with crude put-downs.
A man smokes cigarettes before drinking tequila and large quantities of beer (it all comes back up in the face of a dishonorable coach).
Twice men are shown vomiting up huge amounts for comic effect. Gus lies to his wife, and his friends help him cover his tracks. Clark goes mining for nose nuggets and eats what he finds. A boy with a speech problem spits showers of saliva when he talks. Boorish talk and behavior isn’t limited to bad characters, making it more likely that young viewers will hear the laughter and decide to copy it.
In the pantheon of baseball films there’s a tier reserved for crass underdog comedies about smart-alecky little leaguers. The Benchwarmers would gladly join the likes of Hardball and Bad News Bears, but affection for the game takes a back seat to sophomoric name-calling, projectile vomiting, nipple-twisting and blows to the groin. This is a dopey, Adam Sandler-produced, nerd-empowerment fantasy first and foremost. Even then, it’s hard to tell how the filmmakers really feel about the outcasts. Much like a Farrelly brothers comedy, The Benchwarmers has a blast at the expense of brainy misfits, tearing them down on its way to a finale that wraps an arm around them as if to say, “We kid because we love!” And somewhere amid all of that juvenile cruelty and offensive humor is a sports movie so ludicrous that The Benchwarmers might just replace steroids as baseball’s greatest embarrassment of 2006.