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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Johnny Be Good’ Fumbles as Football Satire

“Johnny Be Good” (selected theaters), a would-be satire on the excesses of big-time college football recruiting, is so bad that the NCAA might consider using it as punishment for coaches who violate regulations.

The story follows the corrupt pursuit of a nice high school football star, Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall), by unscrupulous college presidents and perfidious agents--and it’s one of those movies where almost everything that could go wrong quickly does. It’s over-loud, under-thought sarcasm laid on with a trowel.

The first thing that misfires is the casting. We’re asked to believe that Anthony Michael Hall is the country’s leading high school football prospect--and that Robert Downey Jr. is his back-up man, Leo Wiggins. Now, Hall is an amusing actor at times, but here, even packing 30 extra pounds, he looks no more like a star high school quarterback than Eric Dickerson looks like Spike Lee. You could name hundreds of better choices: Huntz Hall. Annie Hall. Maybe even the Albert Hall.

Not content with giving us the strangest football stars since Desi Arnaz, Eddie Bracken and Richard Carlson played all-Americans in the 1940 “Too Many Girls"--the film makers deluge us with witless complications, unfunny jokes and mawkish sermons on ethics. Howard Cosell and Jim McMahon pop up pointlessly, and we also get flashy Hollywood agents, Texas stripteases and redneck football players who eat worms. There are alumni wives who tear off Johnny’s clothes--naturally right in the middle of a football stadium. And there’s a demented high school coach (Paul Gleason, doing another of his dour-and-glower routines) who sings “Mack the Knife” all the time and frames Walker and Wiggins for rape.

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Writer-producers Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai and David Obst are responsible for “Revenge of the Nerds” and “The Whoopee Boys"--but here, they’ve really hit nada . The only way the actors can make their lines play is to scream them into incomprehensibility. Even that doesn’t always work: Robert Downey Jr.--straying disastrously into Robin Williams territory--burbles out a string of ludicrous improvisations that sound like Pee-wee Herman emerging from a coma. The film makers mortify him further by bringing in his dad, Robert Downey Sr., as the NCAA’s recruiting shamus.

Director Bud Smith is one of Hollywood’s best editors (“To Live and Die in L.A.”), but you wonder what he would have said, or screamed, if some other director had handed him this footage to cut. Completing the disaster, the film makers sabotage one of the few things you’ve had to look forward to: They cut off Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” at the end credits--and replace it with a heavy-metal version by Judas Priest. As Berry himself once said: “Too Much Monkey Business!”


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