Tuesday, December 21, 2021

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner fails to score any points as a sports drama

The most exciting part about American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story comes in one of its first scenes when the film’s titular protagonist walks into a honky-tonk bar in the early 1990s. There’s always a thrill to hearing a song you like show up in a feature film as a needle drop and I experienced that sensation once Neal McCoy’s “Wink” started playing on the soundtrack. There are lots of things I expected to happen in 2021 cinema, but hearing “Wink” in a major theatrical release was not one of them.

More emotions got stirred in my heart recognizing a familiar tune in the background than through the rest of American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Blaring a playlist of my most-listened-to songs on Spotify under the entire feature wouldn’t have made this production any more bearable though. This film is an embarrassingly bad inspirational yarn, the sort of movie that makes you want to sleep rather than cheer. There aren’t just fumbles out on the field here, American Underdog can barely take a few steps out of the locker room without tripping.

Our story begins by following Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) as a college football player. Yes, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin try to pass off Levi as a college-aged kid. John C. Reilly comically playing a middle-schooler in Walk Hard no longer seems like such a stretch! Anyway, Warner is a guy who’s spent his whole life pursuing his dreams of being a football player, it’s all he wants in this world. But challenges keep facing him every step of the way. He never gets a chance to get on the field in college, while his eventual pursuits to get into the NFL keep falling short.

At least he has single mom Brenda (Anna Paquin) and her two kids to bring joy into his life. After her ex-husband abandoned her when she was pregnant, Brenda never thought she could love again. But Kurt Warner changed all that. If he could reinject romance into her existence, who knows what’s possible? Why, even a potential gig with the St. Louis Rams could be waiting in the wings…

The real Warner had an astonishing amount of real-world sports achievements to his name, including becoming a Super Bowl MVP. It’d be interesting to see how he accomplished those feats or even how he navigated day-to-day life with the pressures of those records on his shoulders. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story breezes past such historic in its final 10 minutes and pre-credits on-screen text dump. The screenplay, penned by the Erwin Brothers and Jon Gunn, is much more interested in the melodramatic personal life of Warner.

This sort of intimate focus wouldn’t be so bad if the writers were skilled with penning low-key scenes of human interaction. But good God, they’re not. Characters constantly talk about their dispositions and hang-ups rather than just demonstrating them to the point of unintentional comedy. When they’re not doing that, everyone around Warner seems to speak in quotes tailor-made to be shared as generic inspirational posts on your Aunt’s Facebook page. There are no human beings in American Underdog, just organisms spewing out words so tin-eared it’ll make your skin crawl.

Meanwhile, the script’s pacing is incredibly counterintuitive towards making a compelling underdog story. The primary structure of the plot is that one scene will present an obstacle for Warner while the next scene will immediately wrap up that conflict in a tidy bow. There’s never time to let problems simmer, nor is there any reason to get invested in the drama since it’ll inevitably get erased in just moments. Like the weather in Texas, the sources of conflict in American Underdog are both always changing and deeply unpleasant to experience.

There are even some weird undertones in the second act of the script when Warner is at his lowest-point financially. His football dreams seem farther away than ever as he stocks supermarket shelves. This is when American Underdog engages in a bit of poverty porn while scoring unintentional giggles in presenting Warner using food stamps as disappointing of development as an addict relapsing. Though it aims to appeal to “flyover America”, the film’s approach to economically challenged individuals is shockingly condescending.

And then there’s the odd moralizing in the story, which ends up playing at odds with its sports movie ambitions. The central moral of American Underdog is that winning doesn’t matter if you don’t have people to love by your side. That’s a fine lesson to impart, but it ends up hammering home this concept so much that the shift in the third act to get the audience invested in Warner scoring touchdowns for the St. Louis Rams feels empty. Now the Erwin Brothers want us to be solely interested in winning? Not since CHAPPiE denounced violence while beating up Hugh Jackman has a movie been so confused about its morals.

The use of Christianity in the movie is also strange. The presence of this theology is introduced through Brenda talking to Warner about how important her faith is to her. This stemmed from a childhood encounter with an older lady who said that Brenda was destined for great things by God. From there, American Underdog weirdly plays its two lead characters as Chosen One figures ordained by the Lord. Artists like Carl Theodore Dryer and Martin Scorsese use theology to explore people’s humanity and flaws. The Erwin Brothers, meanwhile, use Christianity to suggest that God is really invested in the outcome of St. Louis Rams games.

But the worst part of American Underdog is how it fails to indulge in the fun hallmarks of sports movies. Where’s the training montage? The fun scenes bonding between the football players? Miracle and Remember the Titans would eat this movie’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Those sports dramas were also considerably better-filmed than American Underdog, with the nadir of its filmmaking coming anytime live-action characters have to stand against comically obvious green-screen backdrops.

A sports movie so generic it’s shocking it didn’t get pumped out by a streaming service algorithm shouldn’t be dragging down likeable actors, but that’s just what American Underdog does. Zachary Levi is a talented guy in many ways, but this drama doesn’t give him a chance to indulge in any of his gifts. He tries his best to lend some humanity to incredibly awkward scenes, like a drawn-out marriage proposal sequence, but there’s only so much one can do. Anna Paquin, meanwhile, often seems like she’s daydreaming about being in better movies. Who could blame her?

The only one exhibiting any life in the cast in American Underdog is Dennis Quaid as coach Dick Vermeil. Coming into the production in the third, Quaid makes the bold decision to play this character with the mannerisms and facial expressions of an impish fairy boy but gives Vermeil the voice of Nick Nolte. The dissonance here is incredible. If the Erwin Brothers had just focused on Quaid’s character for the entire runtime, we wouldn’t have ended up with a good movie, but we certainly would’ve gotten something more interesting.

One of the best parts about sports dramas is how they can tell a story that captivates audiences who otherwise have no interest in things like baseball or football. By contrast, American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story is guaranteed to alienate even die-hard St. Louis Rams and Kurt Warner fans. There’s so much snooze-inducing melodrama and so little interesting football action, it’s hard to tell who this movie is meant to appeal to. Not even utilizing “Wink” can make American Underdog something worth watching. 

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