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Hairy chests and all, 'Friday Night Lights' is worth a look

Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's book that chronicles a season of football at Odessa (Texas) Permian High, is widely considered to be one of the best and most compelling books ever written about sports. Nearly 15 years after the book was published, it has been made into a movie which, ultimately, is not quite as good as I had hoped, but not nearly as bad as I had feared.

The reason I know this is because I got to see it a couple weeks ago. But don't worry: This is not a movie review; the Weekly leaves that sort of thing to the professionals. Rather, this is just a lowly columnist suggesting that people might want to see a certain movie and that they would definitely be well-served to read a certain book. But mostly, it's to tell you about the perks of being a writer.

See, not only did I get to see it; I got to see it in an almost-empty theater with just a handful of other media types. That's right, no 14-year-old boys going "Oh wow!" every 30 seconds. No bitch-ass neighbor from The Land That Manners Forgot answering his bitch-ass cell phone and talking real loud in a bitch-ass voice. No married couples old enough to be able to pick Herbert Hoover out of a police lineup sitting there and explaining the plot back and forth to each other.

Most of all, this wasn't one of those things where they give out 8,000 passes for a 300-seat theater and people show up at 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. preview showing of the hot new sci-fi flick, only to be turned away and asked to fill out a form for which, four months later, the company sends you a pass for Free Willy 3D: The Return of Blubber. No, this was heaven.

It's all well and good that I write about boogers or straws at the Circle K or whatever, and people give me money for having done so. But what's really cool is stuff like this. Sometimes, they even have these media previews at like 10 in the morning. Do you know how good movie-theater popcorn tastes if you get a chance to eat it within minutes of when it was popped, instead of hours? It has flavor and texture, and you can almost imagine a set of circumstances under which a big ol' bucket of that stuff would be worth a dollar.

Lights, both book and movie, look at the 1988 season of Odessa Permian. In Texas, where high school football is a quasi-religion, Permian High is spoken about in hushed tones throughout the state. It's legendary for its championship teams; its ridiculously gaudy 20,000-seat, on-campus stadium that cost $5.6 million to build 25 years ago; and its mascot/slogan/chant of "Mojo!" Located in west Texas, about equidistant between El Paso and Dallas, Odessa is an oil boom-and-bust town whose hardscrabble identity is woven through the bruising style of football that the undermanned and undersized Panthers play.

Adding to its underdog status is a decided inferiority complex when it comes to its nearby "twin" city of Midland, where all of the people on the money side of oil live and prosper. (Young George W. Bush sloshed around in the oil money of Midland for a while before he went off to ruin the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.)

The story runs from the start of practice and the prospects of a special season, even by Permian standards, and ends with a stunning development late in the insanely popular state playoffs.

All in all, the movie is a minor success. It has nice little touches, like the high-school grid heroes sitting in a car, eating their breakfast of microwave burritos and chocolate milk out in front of the 7-Eleven. All of the adults seem to live for it while the players themselves sometimes have trouble living with it. This is the movie that the grotesque and lurid Varsity Blues wanted to be. But it's not quite the movie that the book, its author, and its subject matter deserve it to be. That's why I recommend that you read the book, which is still in print and sells tens of thousands of copies each year.

One thing I highly recommend about the movie is the performance of country singer Tim McGraw as an alcoholic single dad to one of the players. McGraw, who has recently talked about someday running for the United States Senate as a Clintonesque populist, may be able to add movie star to his resume. His portrayal of a man whose entire pathetic life is wrapped up in the championship ring he wears on his finger, a symbol of that one year in high school where he couldn't lose at football or life, is an absolute revelation.

I have to warn you, however. McGraw may have the hairiest chest in North America. It looks like they wove a shag rug onto Austin Powers. Looking at that thatch, you can help but cringe and imagine the scenario that prompted Faith Hill to sing, "I can feel you breathe ..."

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