Picks and Pans Review: Hoosiers

updated 02/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even in his French Connection heyday Gene Hackman was something of a sham as a movie star. Hackman doesn't have the charisma to carry a movie on his own personality, which isn't meant as a slam. Like Robert Duvall, he's a character actor occasionally miscast in star roles. In his most successful outings, Hackman doesn't go around posturing like a star—he serves the vehicle instead of vice versa, which is the case in this immensely likable period drama about that tortured love affair between the state of Indiana and the sport of basketball. Out of the overused underdog scenario, Hoosiers fashions a recognizable, wrenching and most satisfying story. As with the best sport films, it's more interested in the players than the playing. As a once-disgraced basketball coach, Hackman moves to a small town in 1951 to pilot a misfit team of high school students to a championship season. With a less gifted filmmaker, the movie could have been an inappropriately fevered movie about sports enthusiasts. But director David Anspaugh, a veteran of St. Elsewhere, has tempered his drama with an impressive introspection. He doesn't force-feed an audience ersatz Americana. His memorable tableaux possess the ambivalence of Edward Hopper instead of the unalloyed optimism of Norman Rockwell. As written by Angelo Pizzo, a Bloomington, Ind. native who displays real affection for the citizens of the title, Hoosiers observes instead of preaching. Pizzo writes about real folks without being folksy too. Besides Hackman, Hoosiers is graced with a superb cast, including Barbara Hershey, who elevates what could have been a throwaway role as an unlikely love interest. There's a reason the teammates look and act their roles so convincingly: Among the nine members of the squad are seven Indiana natives who are making their movie debuts. Ironically, the point man in this movie—Dennis Hopper, who brilliantly complements his performance in Blue Velvet—isn't actually on the team. As the town's Dickensian drunk, Hopper mimes the benign side of the parochial mentality, and this too represents Oscar-worthy work. As one from the heart and the heartland, Hoosiers is the sleeper of the season. (PG)

From Our Partners