I should first point out that Slap Shot holds a place of honor in the hearts of a great many hockey fans. Viewing it is a virtual rite of passage for them. It is commonly described as “the funniest hockey movie ever made.” In all fairness, I’ve never seen The Mighty Ducks so I can’t confirm or deny that allegation. Let me begin by imagining how I might have reviewed Slap Shot when I first saw it at the age of 18:
1977 review (imagined)
This has got to be one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, as well as the most obscene. The only familiar face in it is Paul Newman, who plays the player/coach of a failing minor league hockey team. There is a semblance of a plot, involving Newman’s efforts to save the franchise from folding while he’s trying to convince his wife to come back to him and trying to convince his star player to become a fighter, but none of that stuff matters. It’s the scenes on the ice and in the locker room that make this film worth seeing. Like I said, it’s mighty obscene, but in a way that will have you falling off your chair with laughter.
There are certain isolated things I liked about this film. It isn’t terribly bad, but overall, it isn’t terribly good either. Paul Newman very nearly makes a silk purse out of the sow’s ear he’s been given for a character. It’s no revelation to say that Newman is a magnetic screen presence, and the unlikable character of coach Reggie Dunlop needs all of the charisma Newman can muster.
As for the humor and obscenity of the hockey scenes, there is still some enjoyment to be found there, but certainly nothing that threatened to jostle me from my seat in spasms of giddy laughter; merely an occasional smile or brief giggle, though I will give screenwriter Nancy Dowd sincere credit for realistically composing the sort of crudely grotesque dialogue that a certain segment of the male population often wallows in.
Part of the fun of watching a movie like this is to spot the people who were nobodies when it was made who have gone on to enjoy long careers. Playing the role of the team’s top player is a young Michael Ontkean, who has now amassed a very long resume, though I’ll always remember him for his role in the TV series Twin Peaks. Playing Ontkean’s wife is Lindsay Crouse, who has similarly amassed an extensive list of credits, including the distinction of being the former wife of writer/director David Mamet. And who should turn up in bed with Paul Newman in one scene but Melinda Dillon, who climbed Devil’s Tower along with Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and who has also kept on working in the ensuing 30 years.
But once I got past those bits of fun, certain things had to be admitted. First among them is the fact that it’s hard to care what happens to these people. The closest we come is with Ontkean and Crouse’s married couple. Their characters are cursed with being intelligent enough to realize how miserable they are, but lacking the courage to do anything about it. Crouse’s character in particular is desperately unhappy, trying to remain drunk as much as possible, and possibly becoming suicidal. Well, until the end of the movie, when she gets a makeover at the local beauty parlor and shows up at the championship hockey game a changed woman. As her eyes lock with her husband’s, we sense that their marriage is saved, though we’re not sure at what cost – to their souls or ours.
The core of my problem with this movie is something I vaguely suspected in 1977, but which I couldn’t put into words at the time. It’s the suspicion that screenwriter Dowd and director George Roy Hill genuinely disliked the sport of hockey, or at least that they weren’t hockey fans. I think it shows in their work and that’s a problem when you’re creating a movie that depends on pulling in hockey fans as a large portion of its intended audience. Now I’m no mind reader; I don’t claim to actually know what they were thinking, but that’s how it comes across – as if the buried message is “Hey you hockey fans! We think you’re idiots. We’re going to say so in this movie and you’re going to pay to come see it because we’ve made a movie about your favorite sport.” As a hockey fan who considers himself to be a non-idiot, that feeling impacts my enjoyment of the film in a negative manner.
As a side note, this movie was the third and final collaboration between Newman and director Hill. Their previous films together were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973) both of which have aged far better than Slap Shot, in this writer’s opinion. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they never worked together again after this project. Hill passed away in 2002 and the latest reports on Newman’s health seem pretty dire, I’m sorry to say. He is apparently putting his affairs in order and may not have much time left. Sorry to end this post on a downer, but there it is.