Best of Times, The

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 07/17/02 14:12:20

"Easily the best football flick you've probably never seen."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Capra knew it. Stallone knew it. And screenwriter Ron Shelton clearly knows it: moviegoers love to root for the underdog. 'Rudy' and 'Hoosiers' aren't well-loved films necessarily because they're brilliant cinema, but because they're picture-perfect depictions of lovable underdogs overcoming ridiculous odds. Shelton, the modern master of cinematic sports flicks scored an early touchdown with The Best of Times, a mildly predictable but also extremely charming little football comedy.

If you're a fan of sports cinema, I'm betting you have a soft spot for Ron Shelton. Since 1986, Shelton's been offering moviegoers a steady diet of baseball, football, golf, boxing, and basketball flicks. Sure, there have been a few stray turkeys; if you want a clear example of Shelton's best efforts you should absolutely avoid Play It to the Bone and The Great White Hype. On the other hand, it's tough to knock a sports-obsessed filmmaker who's given us such eclectic mini-classics as Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, and Tin Cup, in addition to a few underrated efforts like Blue Chips and Cobb.

As a guy who loves watching sports almost as much as he loves watching movies, I've always had soft spot for Shelton's work. Following his debut screenplay (the Nick Nolte political thriller Under Fire), Shelton penned The Best of Times for director Roger Spottiswoode (filmmaker behind the criminally forgotten Shoot to Kill), and the unlikely pair of Robin Williams and Kurt Russell signed on to play some football.

Williams plays a sweet nebbish known as Jack Dundee, bank manager and longtime small-town goat. Seems that once upon a time Jack dropped a sure-thing touchdown pass in the Taft/Bakersfield high-school championship game, and the lovable schlub has never been able to live it down. Rusell is Reno Hightower, former star quarterback and devoted pal to Dundee. Working as an auto mechanic (thanks to an unfortunate gridiron injury) and nurturing a fractured marriage, Reno glibly accepts Jack's age-old ponderings about woulda, coulda, and shoulda while trying to make ends meet and enjoy a quiet (if unexceptional) life.

Following the offhand advice from a surprisingly helpful prostitute, Jack is struck was an epiphany: REMATCH! Sure, all the Taft players are now in their mid-thirties and almost dangerously overweight, but Jack needs redemption dammit! And he's not about to let anyone change his mind - least of all Reno, who (not surprisingly) proves to be the most dead-set against the potentially humiliating football farce. After picking a fight with the rival town of Bakersfield (by way of his pompous and hateful father-in-law), Dundee sets to inspiring Reno back into playing form as the citizens of Taft slowly begin to rally around Jack's insane scheme.

Pamela Reed and Holly Palance have several sweet moments as the duo's wives. You might expect the wives to be relatively unimportant factors in a football movie, but Shelton knows better. Not content to have his leading ladies act as mere window-dressing, he not only gives the actresses a few choice scenes - but also creates them as actual characters, in that they actually have an actual bearing on the plot.

The Best of Times, aside from being a satisfying underdog story, is a comedy that displays a real charm. The town of Taft is introduced through a series of hilariously depressing 'bad news' histories, there's a very brief but very sweet 'framing' story involving Taft's only true 'sports hero', and the flick is literally teeming with some of Hollywood's coolest living character actors. Donald Moffat, Donovan Scott, M. Emmet Walsh, Dub Taylor, Kathleen Freeman, Margaret Whitton, R.G. Armstrong, Tony Plana, etc. Oh man! Even the fact that Kirk Cameron is on board can't mar this great little flick, because he's real young here and hadn't become poisonously obnoxious just yet. The supporting cast delivers at every possible turn, but the magic of The Best of Times lies with two guys.

Striking up a realistic and altogether infectuous chemistry, Williams and Russell absolutely shine here. Williams tones down his trademark mania (for the most part, anyway) and creates a characters who's funny and endearing. Sure, nobody does 'full-on insanity' like the immortal comedian side of Robin Williams, but The Best of Times offered audiences an early glimpse at the actor's broader range. As far as Kurt Russell goes, I've always considered him fairly underrated as an actor - and his mildly-grumpy-guy-next-door charm has never been more evident than in The Best of Times.

Forgotten by most yet seemingly adored by those who choose to remember it, The Best of Times stands in my book as one of the truly great sports comedies. The 'football-flick' predictability of the gridiron finale is more than forgivable, considering the amount of solid laughs, charming performances and cockeyed charm that the film offers along the way.

If all you know of Robin Williams is Patch Adams; if all you know of Kurt Russell is Snake Plisskin; if all you know of football flicks are The Replacements and Varsity Blues...take my advice and rent this one tomorrow.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.