Calling the plot of “Rudy” (citywide) durable is like saying that Michael Jordan knows a thing or two about jumping. Sweet-natured and unsurprising, about as hard to resist (and as intellectually demanding) as an affectionate puppy, this is one of those Never Say Die, I Gotta Be Me, Somebody Up There Likes Me sports movies that no amount of cynicism can make much of a dent in.
A few things, however, set “Rudy” a bit apart. For openers, it’s the first movie allowed to shoot at the University of Notre Dame since the venerable “Knute Rockne, All American” more than half a century earlier. And, as all visitors to the campus know, Notre Dame is a place where football fever is so intermixed with religious fervor that a statue of a priest giving a benediction has been nicknamed “Fair Catch Crowley” and a mosaic of Christ Triumphant directly behind the stadium goal posts is familiarly known as Touchdown Jesus.
And Daniel E. (Rudy) Ruettiger’s football story, which is one of the most unreal tales ever to be based on real events, is not a saga of fighting and clawing one’s way to the top, or even the middle. Rather, it tells of a lad who strove mightily against fierce odds for years of his life just on the off-chance that one day he might be allowed to suit up, walk onto the field and be a bench warmer. Now, that’s dedication.
Even as a child growing up in the working-class neighborhoods of Joliet, Ill., Rudy’s athletic abilities were not respected: “What a spaz!” was a typical playmate comment. Still, he memorized Rockne’s pep talks and insisted that he was going to the school his steel-mill hand father Daniel (Ned Beatty) so venerated that no other college’s football games were allowed to desecrate the family TV set.
But at “five-foot-nothing, 100 and nothing, with hardly a spec of athletic ability,” as an observer describes him, Rudy (Sean Astin) can barely make his high school team. And his academic exploits are so unimpressive that his teacher won’t even let him ride the bus to a tour of the South Bend campus. “Be grateful for what you have,” he’s told, but Rudy isn’t listening, he’s dreaming.
Then, after years mooning around at his dad’s steel mill, a tragedy strikes and Rudy is galvanized. Leaving friends, family and suffering fiancee (Lili Taylor), he packs a duffel and heads for the campus. Barging past a flummoxed secretary into the office of head coach Ara Parseghian (Jason Miller), he blithely announces: “I’m here to play football for Notre Dame.”
Naturally, Parseghian thinks he’s a bit cracked, and so does everyone else he comes in contact with. But Rudy is nothing if not persistent, and with the help of a kindly friend (Jon Favreau), an even kindlier priest (Robert Prosky) and the kindliest of head groundskeepers (Charles S. Dutton), he begins to make progress toward his dream of walking out on the field in a Notre Dame uniform.
Actually, as convincingly played by Astin (“Encino Man,” “Where the Day Takes You”), Rudy is more than just persistent, he is equal parts likable and unaffected. In fact the 22-year-old actor’s engaging performance as the one college kid who never, ever, slacked off is the best thing about this film, and his combination of determination and affability goes a long way toward making Rudy’s odyssey as palatable as it’s going to get.
As written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, “Rudy” is smoothly done, as well it might be, for this is the same creative team that made the similarly real-life-inspired “Hoosiers” back in 1986. In fact, it is a tribute to the flesh-and-blood Rudy’s stubbornness and persuasive powers that the filmmakers agreed to take another shot at uplifting sports dramas.
Likable though it is, “Rudy” the movie could do with some of the texture the Gene Hackman-Barbara Hershey relationship gave “Hoosiers.” And Pizzo and Anspaugh have had difficulty restraining themselves where the gee-whiz emotionality of the film’s closing section is concerned. Dan Devine, who replaced Parseghian and coached Notre Dame during Rudy’s moments of glory, has in fact publicly complained that a key scene is so different from reality as to be “unforgivable.”
Yet underneath its rah-rah spirit, the PG-rated “Rudy” is straightforward enough to raise, albeit unintentionally, some troubling questions. Although we’re supposed to be nothing but charmed by how much it means to Rudy to play football for Notre Dame, his obsessed determination begins to look less inspirational and more like a kind of mental aberration the longer the movie goes on. And when it turns out that a dose of masochism is involved in the kind of physical punishment he ends up taking in pursuit of his grail, one wonders if Rudy in particular, and driven fans in general, aren’t suffering from a peculiar psychosis that is no less serious for being fabulously widespread.
Sean Astin: Rudy
Ned Beatty: Daniel
Charles S. Dutton: Fortune
Jason Miller: Ara Parseghian
Lili Taylor: Sherry
Robert Prosky: Father Cavanaugh
A Fried/Woods production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director David Anspaugh. Producers Robert N. Fried, Cary Woods. Executive producer Lee R. Mayes. Screenplay Angelo Pizzo. Cinematographer Olivere Wood. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costumes Jane Anderson. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Robb Wilson King. Set decorator Martin Price. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.