While watching Michael Phelps reaffirm the worthlessness of my life this past week, I was struck with a thought: where have all the good sports movies gone? In a reality where sports as an enterprise rake-in unfathomable sums in ticket sales and merchandise, the cinema remains plagued with second-rate underdog stories and reject team comedies. Many readers may not count themselves as sports junkies, but the beauty of a good movie set in the world of athletics is that it appeals to all interests.
Take for instance the FX show The League. One might think to avoid it because a show about fantasy football is going to alienate anyone who doesn’t know what a PAT is. Much to the contrary, the writers behind The League use the sports aspect of their show to flesh out a stable of flawed characters who are willing to sacrifice family, friends and dignity in pursuit of the Shiva trophy.
Plus she’s in it.
Modern sports films fail because they are predetermined to reach one of two climaxes: the underdog heroes win, or they lose but really they win because they learned to not be racist or to accept each other or insert pandering life-lesson here. Unlike films about relationships, sports movies are destined to end in a game, where one team must best the other. Certainly there are tons of romantic comedies that set the same goal (will they be a couple or not) but there is certainly a lot more gray area to work with. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ends with Joel and Clementine willing to take a mulligan on a failed relationship, but without any guarantee they’ll succeed. Unfortunately for sports films, the rival baseball team can’t dye their hair a bunch of colors and ponder their lives over a Beck song. The necessity of a Big Game is killing sports movies.
This dynamic hasn’t always reigned supreme. Several beloved sports movies deftly avoided the clichés of their genre. The original Bad News Bears sets-up its audience to expect failure from the opening scene. The Bears ultimately make it to the Big Game, but Coach Buttermaker elects to play the benchwarmer players instead of fielding the most competitive kids. The Bears narrowly lose but rejoice in their bond as outcasts. One could argue this film embodies the cliché of the team losing but winning by learning a lesson, expect that the only lessons the Bears really learn is how to shotgun beers and talk smack.
Don’t even mention Billy Bob Thorton in the same sentence as this man.
A more recent example is Moneyball. The dynamics of Billy Beane’s front office dealings are confusing to even the most diehard baseball fans. The heart of the movie lies in Beane’s determination to prove money isn’t the only element necessary in building a a baseball team. Most viewers will know that the Oakland Athletics did not win the 2002 World Series, so expectations for a Big Game are alleviated before the first pitch is thrown. On top of that, the players aren’t really a focal point in the movie, which is highly abnormal for a sports film. What we’re left with is the efforts of a failed baseball prospect to leave his mark on the game in whatever way he can, a unique angle that really hits the mark. But for every Bad News Bears and Moneyball, there are twenty movies like We Are Marshall, The Benchwarmers and The Legend of Baggar Vance. Can the formula be fixed?
There are several things that can be done to give sports cinema a new life. First: stop basing everything on games that actually happened. Somewhere in the aftermath of Rudy, everyone decided to scour every sports almanac from the twentieth century for plots.* We don’t like knowing who wins the game before we’ve ordered our popcorn. Take the gist of real life events and make something more spectacular out of them. The movie’s called Rocky, not Chuck Wepner, but I don’t hear anyone complaining.
Chuck Wepner begins the process of crapping his pants while fighting Muhammad Ali.
Second: move beyond the wins and losses. Which teams get the most viewers on a nightly basis? Those would be winning franchises. For better or worse, people want to see the Yankees, Patriots and Lakers. So give it to them! Where are the movies about elite teams that topple like Rome and character studies set in cities that live and die by their sports? Big Fan expertly takes a team (the NY Giants) and lets their story play out through the eyes of an obsessive, depressed fan. Players can be interesting, but fans are almost always crazier. Don’t tell me you don’t spend almost as much time looking at the wackjobs in the stands as the players on the field when you go to a game. More please.
My third and final critique is aimed at the world of sports comedies: it’s time to give up on the Big Four (MLB, NFL, NBA & NHL). Sports comedies are usually about outlandish players who are either emotionally/physically unfit to play or egocentric douchebags. I don’t inherently have an issue with this, but I will say the results seem to improve when the setting is a more obscure sport. Quick, which Will Ferrell movie is funnier: Semi-Pro or Blades of Glory? Ferrell as a basketball player is tired, but as a “sex on ice” rockstar iceskater, he kills it. Why? Because we know basketball too well to accept Ferrell’s character, whereas with figure skating we’re inclined to believe someone that stupid could actually thrive. Give up on baseball, football, basketball and probably hockey. Stick with golf (Happy Gilmore), NASCAR (Talladega Nights) and bobsledding (Cool Runnings).
Braveheart + Patton Oswalt = Big Fan
My hope is to someday soon see a trailer for a sports movie that doesn’t feature a 1970s soul song or a snippet of inspirational score behind slow-mo shots of athletes competing. I refuse to accept that our society can be this obsessed with sports yet so awful at making movies about them. Get away from the games and start looking at why we are care so much about them. Quit making movies about long-shots and has-beens. The problem with sports films is the problem with real sports: too much focus on the players, not enough the game. The ratio of sports fans to players is pretty stacked, so maybe there’s something to be said for turning the camera towards them a bit more often and giving up on the millionth shot of a ball rolling endlessly around the rim of a hoop before triumphantly falling in. I already get NBATV^. Now I want a movie.
* There’s a Back to the Future Pt. 2 reference in here somewhere
^ I can’t actually afford NBATV