Making a movie about Caltech basketball is like writing a history of the Catholic Church and focusing on bingo. The fabled science school, with 31 Nobel Prize winners on its faculty and a history of almost unparalleled academic achievement, hadn’t tasted an NCAA conference win for 21 years when helmer Rick Greenwald decided the time was ripe to make a film about the team. He was right. Theatrical success seems unlikely, but “Quantum Hoops” is a lovable piece that should find an audience somewhere, certainly in Stockholm. Pic began its limited engagement Nov. 2 in Los Angeles.
The California Institute of Technology hasn’t always been a sports punchline — in 1944, when Navy men swelled the ranks of the student body as part of the search for an atomic bomb, the football team was not only undefeated but unscored upon. But when the film opens on their 2006-07 season, the Beavers haven’t tasted victory since Ronald Reagan was president and Michael Jordan (with whom the Caltech players share virtually no similarities) was just beginning his career. “It seems impossible,” head coach Roy Dow says, amazed by his own team’s propensity for defeat. But at Caltech, as we are told, students have always been taught to defy assumptions about what’s possible and not.
David Duchovny is an ideal narrator for “Quantum Hoops,” since he can talk about the history and technology surrounding Caltech without sounding like a confused refugee from ESPN. Greenwald (who also wrote, edited and produced the pic) offers some history of the school, background on its sports lore and brief profiles of various Caltech personalities (such as Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, who seems as enthusiastic about basketball as he is about chemistry).
But Greenwald always swings around to the team, which keeps cutting its margins of defeat. From losses like 120-43, the Beavers start losing by only 10 or 14 points. The suspense won’t exactly kill anyone; unlike most sports movies, in which a championship or a career is at stake, the viewer knows pretty well that every Caltech player will go on to do great things, albeit in physics or economics. But that elusive win does become a tantalizing prospect.
Like last year’s excellent scholar-athlete doc, “Oxford Blues,” about the English university’s boxing program, “Quantum Hoops” puts the entire issue of academia and sports into perspective: The Caltech players, most of whom never even played high school basketball (although eight valedictorians are on the team), compete not for money, TV time or an NBA draft shot, but because they love it. And although Greenwald has made a fairly lighthearted film, replete with playful graphics and humorous digressions, it does prompt some serious reflection on what college sports are really all about.
Production values, virtually all of which were executed by Greenwald, are above average.