10/20/2011 08:04 am ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Movie Review: The Mighty Macs

As underdog sports movies go, The Mighty Macs has plenty of spirit - but also a slavish devotion to the template of the "last-to-first" sports-film formula.

The fact that it's based on a true story - about the tiny Immaculata College's 1972 title run for the women's NCAA basketball crown - is a guaranteed schmaltz-magnet. Anybody, after all, can write an underdog story. It's Screenwriting 101: "David, Meet Goliath!" But only real life can produce the kind of underdog story that Hollywood so relishes - the better to turn them into box-office winners.

Really - would anyone watch Rudy if it weren't a true story? No way - they'd say, "Aw, that's really formulaic." Not that they didn't say that about Rudy, but, hey, it's a true story.

So is The Mighty Macs, which chronicles Cathy Rush's (Carla Gugino) first season as basketball coach of the Immaculata Macs. Talk about underdogs: This is a Catholic college that is facing closure for lack of funds. The basketball team doesn't even have a usable gym - and so has to play all its games on the road.

Cathy is scrappy; the daughter of a coach, she played for a champion college coach and now gets the chance to coach against her former mentor. But her players are mostly hobbyists, rather than athletes or gymrats. So she - and her spunky nun buddy Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton) - cajole, browbeat and otherwise coach their young Catholic charges into playing self-sacrificing, hard-headed basketball. Guess where it takes them?

Still, they're constantly battling the backstory: Will this be the college's final year, just as the school becomes a potential basketball powerhouse (a mere 25 years before anyone starts to take women's basketball seriously)? The local archdiocese is struggling - nay, praying over - the college's future and whether the diocese would be better off selling the college for a large chunk of a developer's cash.

These are matters of interest - to someone, I'm sure, though not to me. My concern rests with the deft, always luminous Gugino, who can't seem to find the same kind of traction or offers with her movie career that she's had on stage. That's a shame; Gugino is the best thing about this movie, the one figure who seems to be three-dimensional, in spite of the script. She makes Cathy a strong, determined woman, despite the movie's occasional efforts to domesticate her by showing her turning to her rock-solid hubby (David Boreanaz) for support.

The excitement level of the sports sequences is competent, but The Mighty Macs feels overly familiar and in no sense new. It's not that the film is about a story from 40 years ago; it's that it often looks and feels like it was made 40 years ago instead.

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