OK, let’s admit and face it, no one on planet Earth is really looking forward to “Playing For Keeps,” except for maybe Gerard Butler’s mom (god, this guy’s been in a lot of miserable movies no one cared about in 2012), but hey, we’ll take any excuse we can get to discuss some movies that revolve around our beloved futbol (sorry, Chuck Klosterman, we still disagree with you here).
With this, uhh, romantic comedy about soccer (or soccer moms? DOES ANYONE REALLY KNOW WHAT THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT?) coming into theaters this weekend, we figured, shit, this is as good as time as any to talk about some of our favorite, and not so favorite soccer films. They’re not all the “best,” per se, but these are ten, sometimes interesting, sometimes great and off-kilter picks that are probably better worth your time than watching Butler be a dad/washed up soccer star/sports broadcaster/whatever.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a good old fashioned crowdpleaser, and Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” wears that designation with pride. Even though it’s only ten years old, they truly don’t make ‘em like this anymore -- a geniunely enjoyable comedy that you can actually watch with your mom and not worry that a penis joke or boobs are suddenly going to appear. Yep, it’s wholesome but also the kind of multi-culture picture people continually ask for and that we still don’t see too often at the multiplex. Parminder Nagra stars as Jess, the daughter of Indian immigrants who not only loves soccer, but has the talent to make it a career. Her best bud Jules (Keira Knightley) and coach/quasi-love interest Joe (a surprisingly subdued Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) are thrilled, but of course, her parents aren’t. Yes, it’s a familiar formula, but spirited, sincere performances and a light but insightful script by Chadha keep things fresh and involving, even if you know where every beat of the story goes next. ‘Beckham’ effectively captures the passion for the sport that infects players and fans worldwide, and allows viewers to feel it as well, all while deftly weaving the story against the backdrop of a teenager forced to make very adult decisions about her life. Warm and earnest, ‘Beckham’ doesn’t need tragedy or upheaval to sell the pure joy of soccer.
It always helps with a sports movie if it focuses on your own team. And so it was with "Fever Pitch." Nick Hornby's breakthrough 1992 memoir focuses on his life-long obsession with Arsenal F.C., who happened to also be Playlister Oli's local club, and his first true love. He'd read, and not really understood the book (to be fair, he was ten years old at the time), but in 1997, it came to screens, adapted by the author and starring Colin Firth, who'd recently become the nation's favorite heartthrob thanks to the TV miniseries of "Pride & Prejudice." In David Evans' film, the material was fictionalized and turned into a rom-com, with Firth playing Hornby surrogate Paul, a North London schoolteacher who's lived for Arsenal since going with his dad as a boy. He sparks up a romance with colleague Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), but as Arsenal head towards a game against Liverpool on the final day of the season that will decide the title, Paul may be forced to decide between the girl and the game. It's a modest, conventional little entry in the post-'Four Weddings' run of British rom-coms, and certainly outshone by the adaptation of Hornby's "High Fidelity" three years later. But Firth is winning (as is a young Mark Strong, as his best friend; one can see why their relationship in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has added weight), there's real insight into the world of obsessive fandom and the toll it can take on your relationships, and it's pretty fitfully funny. (Side note: the team had also featured front and center in another film, 1939's "The Arsenal Stadium Mystery," an oddity of a pre-war thriller).
"Kicking & Screaming" was hated early on in some small cinephile circles for having the gall to steal its title from Noah Baumbach’s 1995 disenfranchised post-college comedy of the same name. While the corporate entity of Universal won the battle (there was some talk of exploring a lawsuit, but it quickly fizzled out), Baumbach’s film won the war -- the original is now regarded as an indie-classic and has the Criterion stamp of approval, while the Will Ferrell-starring soccer movie is largely regarded as mediocre and forgettable. And it is... but it also isn’t. Directed by Jesse Dylan (“American Wedding”), the story and filmmaking is about as pedestrian and predictable as it can get. The story centers on a easy-going family man (played by Ferrell) who suffers the lifelong abuse of his father's (Robert Duvall) competitive nature (the casting of the veteran seems to nod to "The Great Santini"). But the mild-mannered man transforms when he takes on the coaching duties of his son’s pitiful ragtag soccer team. Pitted against his father who is coaching a crackerjack team of youngsters, Ferrell’s Phil Weston soon snaps and turns into a raging dysfunctional asshole obsessed with winning and beating his father. While it’s rated PG, and therefore seemingly safe as milk in many ways (though it feels like a PG-13 film), fans of Ferrell will at least appreciate the second half of the movie when he turns into a ballistic animal. Scenes of the comedian screaming insanely at children are good stuff and the absurd caffeine-addiction subplot (which is supposed to be part of the reason he turns into a maniacal fiend), which culminates in a coffee shop meltdown, is deliciously funny. Again, while kinda dumb, avid soccer fans will appreciate some of it, including the two Italian ringer kids brought in to help Ferrell’s horrendously untalented team get into the playoffs. Co-starring ex-Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and Kate Walsh, it’s difficult to vouch too hard for this fairly forgettable comedy, but soccer and Will Ferrell fans should get at least a tiny kick out of some of the actor’s pricelessly moronic freak-outs and breakdowns.
All team loyalties aside, one of, if not the most gifted and charismatic players of all time was volatile French genius Eric Cantona, a sensation for Manchester United in the 1990s, before he disgraced himself by attacking a rival fan at game in 1995. Banned for eight months and retiring two years later, Cantona went into acting, with a small role in Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth," and several others back home in France. And ten years later, the two sides of his life came into perfect harmony with Ken Loach's wonderful "Looking For Eric," a kitchen sink fantasy in which Cantona plays himself (he also co-produced the movie). The film stars character actor (and former bassist for The Fall) Steve Evets as Eric Bishop, a postman and lifelong Man United fan, with an estranged relationship to his ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop), a stepson (Gerard Kearns) getting involved in gang culture, and a generally crumbling life that's left him on the brink of suicide. But one day, a weed smoking session sees him greeted by the vision of his namesake and hero Eric Cantona, who becomes a sort of guardian angel and advisor, giving Bishop the confidence to get his life together. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (a serious United fan, and it shows) plays on Cantona's quirky, philosophical persona, and his reputation as a "flawed genius," as Evets puts it at one point, making him a charming companion to the hero, and their discussions of the Beautiful Game are among the best in cinema -- this scene in particular. But it's Evets who's the stand out -- a deeply warm, good-hearted man who's finally trying to get his shit together and be a better person. The gangster subplot leads the film astray, and stops it from being among Loach's very best, but it's still one of his sweetest and most accessible films, and was a deserving box office hit on release.
For ardent fans of soccer, Argentine futbol player Diego Maradona was/is one of the most colorful characters in the sport, and arguably, along with Pele, considered one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a soccer pitch A huge, dominating force in global soccer, Maradona played in four FIFA World Cup tournaments, led Argentina to a victory in 1986 and almost another one in 1990 (they lost 1-0 to Germany in the final match). But towards the end of his career, the outspoken Maradona became more infamous for his off-field antics, testing positive for cocaine in 1991, and sent home from the 1994 World Cup after failing an ephedrine test. It’s rich material for a documentary, and so in 2008, filmmaker Emir Kusturica took on the player in "Maradona by Kusturica," which played at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition in 2008 but never received a North American theatrical release (and arrived quietly on DVD in 2011). Unfortunately, it’s nothing if not a missed opportunity. Granted tremendous access with the star, the resulting effort is an absolutely bizarre mix of Maradona apology that fails to ask any hard questions, lots of Kusturica himself for some reason, clips from the director's films and an endless repeat of Maradona’s goals soundtracked to Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in some kind of limp political statement. This is hardly a definite portrait of the sport’s most controversial names, but instead a document of a director hanging out with a celebrity and writing a half-hearted mash note. It’s not a surprise it barely got a release before limping to DVD.