Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Double Feature: Sports Flick Drama

Sports movies are something special. Sports movies based on a true story are even more so. But sports movies based on a true story and produced by Walt Disney Studios?


Today we're going to look at two sports flicks that have come out recently that aren't exactly the second coming of Moneyball. The first, Draft Day, is a fictional behind-the-scenes look of an NFL team - in this case, the hard-losing Cleveland Browns - whose General Manager, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) gets the opportunity to trade for the #1 pick in the draft, just hours before one of the most celebrated sporting events in the United States goes live. He's under pressure from the owner (Frank Langella), his former championship-winning coach (Dennis Leary), and even his mother (Ellen Burstyn) to make a splash for a team and a city that have been suffering an epic Super Bowl drought. It's a lot of pressure on one man, who only wants the chance to build a team of his own and see what can be done.
"You can't let them in here! They'll... they'll see the big board!"
It's not everyday you see the National Football League have an actual presence in a movie - usually, unless the movie in question is a biopic, NFL team names are either replaced by fictional fill-ins or mentioned in passing - but they're all over Draft Day, along with a healthy presence from ESPN for good measure. While on the surface that might seem like a raw, artificial deal, this is a film in which the combination of Hollywood and the showmanship of the NFL really works. Thanks to a surprisingly deft script (courtesy of newcomers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman), it's got the strengths of both sides, with an excellent, stylized, expertly-edited narration that keeps you guessing as to the final outcome, and few of the weaknesses you might expect to come from that coupling.
Hey, I didn't know the Browns were interested in drafting Jackie Robinson.
Despite the strength in presentation, does Draft Day have its faults? Well, sure, the characters are all kinds of cliches, the subplot of the office romance between Weaver and Jennifer Garner's otherwise-cool "female sports executive" (because a woman can't be in a sports movie unless she's the love interest, mother or daughter) is forced, a bit unsatisfying, and absolutely a pandering to a potential female audience, and when you cast rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in a major role, need I say more? But under the expert direction of Ivan Reitman (yeah, I forgot the director of Ghostbusters was here) the actors mostly put in excellent efforts, the characters are at certainly memorable, whether it's Leary's gruff antagonistic Head Coach or Chadwick Boseman as a flamboyant, energetic potential draftee. Reitman is definitely a master storyteller, as this had all the potential to be an artificial-feeling romanticization of the real NFL. It still goes a little over the top, but Draft Day is a surprisingly fun football movie, and if you can still see this in the theater, you could do a whole lot worse.

And by "a whole lot worse," I'm obviously referring to Million Dollar Arm, which had all the potential in the world as a sports tale based on a true story, before Disney got its hooks in it. On the surface, the tale of a down-on-his-luck sports agent (John Hamm) who travels to India to recruit Cricket players as potential Major League baseball players seems like JUST the idea a clever storyteller brings to the big screen. In practice... well, if you were offended by the whitewashing and "white savior" controversy that was The Help, then you haven't seen anything until you see White People Problems: The Sports Flick.

As far as acting goes, this movie has a ton of talent. Hamm transitions smoothly from TV, and while he's certainly helped by his square jaw and gruff demeanor, he shows a range that may surprise you if you havent' yet gotten around to watching Mad Men. He's also surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including The Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal as the two young athletes the agent recruits, Lake Bell as his neighbor/love interest, and Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi in smaller roles. Hindi star Pitobash steals many a scene as a young baseball fanatic, and while Alan Arkin tends to play the exact same character these days, you can't discount his presence or entertainment value whenever he's on the screen. In all, gun-for-hire director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) gets excellent performances from his talented team. Unfortunately, that's where this movie's upside just about dries up.
I was feeling like Arkin when I saw this, too.
But while the story of these two young men and their introduction to the sport of baseball is interesting and occasionally inspirational, we really don't learn all that much about newfound pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. The script paints them as coming from typically poor settings, and even if the representation of their upbringing is accurate, it doesn't make up for characters that are shallowly written, despite the charm that Sharma and Mittal bring to the roles. Instead, the story focuses all its attention on Hamm's J.B. Bernstein, combining a typical fish-out-of-water story with  money problems and a "will-they-won't-they" love story with Lake Bell's polar opposite neighbor (again, even if the events are remotely accurate, why does it all come off as classic Hollywood schlock?). As good as Hamm is, he really ought to have been a supporting character in this tale, but for the Disnification by the film's financiers.
The Daily Show auditions ran a little late...
Million Dollar Arm has a slew of smaller problems, as well. The dialogue is full of genre cliches and familiar arguments. Worse, the arguments presented are forced and don't really make any sense from a logical perspective. For instance, many characters throw down in arguments with Bernstein in terms of his treatment of the players, even though the script makes things perfectly clear that in certain explicit situations he has no power over the topic in question, making the idea of his "redemption" (from asshole to nice guy) feel ill-conceived and baseless. And along those same lines, the redemption subplot is poorly implemented, and whether the numerous red herrings that are his out-of-nowhere character turns are due to poor writing or atrocious editing is pointless to ruminate on, as either way still kills much of the story's momentum. The film even wastes the musical talents of Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman, whose unique style is wiped away to provide a simple, rote soundtrack completely void of character or identity.
"Urge to kill... rising..."
And despite that, I can't really call Million Dollar Arm a BAD movie. It accomplished exactly what it set out to do, as mistaken as the goals it postulated were. It's occasionally fun, inspirational and interesting. It's also brainless, with the focus in the completely wrong place. Not to mention that since this is a Disney movie, they avoid pointing out any serious negative about the story (like the fact that one of these young men has already been released by his major league baseball club, while the other has suffered a string of injuries and may never pitch in the majors). I guess Disney figured that nobody would want to see such a strong cultural tale told from the point of view of someone who WASN'T an American, but since nobody bothered to see this, either, I guess that concept backfired on them anyway. This MIGHT be worth a DVD rental sometime in the future, as there's definitely some interesting stuff to glean from the story's mere existence. But when compared to Draft Day, or ANY decent sports movie for that matter, Million Dollar Arm comes up a bit lame.

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