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MOVIE REVIEW

McConaughey wins you over in heartfelt 'We Are Marshall'

Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel , who rescues Marshall University's football program. (frank masi/warner bros.)

In "We Are Marshall," Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel , a football coach who heads to Huntington, W.Va., to rebuild a college program after the team and staff have died in a plane crash. He's all teeth. His oily hair is matted to his head. And that drawling Southern accent slithers from the side of his mouth. As a star, McConaughey always had a sleazy charm, but this time his greasiness doesn't leave its usual stain on your palm: There's no trans fat.

The actor's lov able exuberance is exactly what this heartsick movie needs. It's based on the true story of a town reeling after a 1970 crash killed 75 people connected to Marshall University. There is much hand-wringing over whether to continue the program. Friends, parents, administrators, and players who missed the game drift through Huntington hungover with a kind of survivor's guilt. The assistant coach (Matthew Fox), who didn't board the plane in order to see a recruit, resigns. A dead player's widowed father (Ian McShane) sulks in what becomes a memorial booth at the local diner. And that same kid's bereft girlfriend (Kate Mara) continues to pour his coffee.

This middle-class town needs healing quick. But no one thinks more football is the cure -- no one except the students themselves. Led by Anthony Mackie, they interrupt the administration's private meeting aimed at laying the program to rest. Mackie points the adults to a window where the entire undergraduate body has gathered on the lawn below. "We are" -- they shout -- "Marshall!" It takes about 20 rounds of that, but it works.

The meek university president (David Strathairn, back to namby-pamby parts) hits the phones, looking for a coach. Every man he calls turns him down. Lengyel, though, is interested, having applied for the job from his home in Ohio. He's a loving husband, an indefatigable father of three, and, ladies, a reader of Redbook, too. Soon he's putting together a football team for Marshall. Having charmed Fox's character to be his number two, he and his coaching staff go looking for whomever they can find, mainly by poaching players good at other sports. Their kicker, for instance, just launched a soccer ball yards over the goal.

The director of "We Are Marshall" is McG , is the same man who gave us two jiggling helpings of "Charlie's Angels." The football film you'd expect from him would probably accentuate the cheerleading and turn the games into combat. But he does well by Jamie Linden's generic but sincere script. Personalities emerge instead of types. And while one too many Motown- and classic-rock-driven montages are ladled on, this is the rare football drama ("Friday Night Lights" is another) that gives you a sense of what football means to a town.

From the new recruits wearing the numbers of the dead, we deduce that it can't be easy being on a haunted team, especially as badly as some of these kids play. Sorrow and trauma are the enemies, not a rival football team. (Amazingly, another West Virginia team actually lends out plays!)

McConaughey has the advantage of playing the only person in town who had nothing to do with life before the crash. He doesn't have to look woebegone or wallow in the dumps. And he makes the most of it -- squinting, insinuating, and gesticulating like the rascally George W. Bush of the 2000 campaign. (Remember him?)

Talking with his body as much as with his mouth, McConaughey often keeps his fingers pressed together, one arm aimed over yonder, like he's operating an invisible remote control. Apparently, the thing works. He seduces Fox to coach again, and we recognize the spell Fox falls under. We've fallen under it, too.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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