People are often looking for a good heartwarming and inspirational films during the holiday season, and there’s nothing quite like a sports movie to hit that button. In the case of Jon and Andrew Erwin's American Underdog, the title alone sounds like it was developed under laboratory conditions to appeal to the widest possible domestic audience. Unfortunately, as is often the case when you try to make a movie for everybody, it succeeds in impressing nobody.
Kurt Warner (Shazam’s Zachary Levi) has always dreamed of playing quarterback in the NFL. Unfortunately, he spent most of his college career on the bench, and even when he does get a chance to shine, he’s playing in a small college in Iowa – the kind of school to which pro scouts don’t often pay much attention. Kurt finds his own inspiration in Brenda (Anna Paquin), a young woman with two kids from a previous marriage, one of whom is legally blind. While Brenda expects this will scare Kurt away, it does the opposite, and they become an unlikely family unit while Kurt tries to find a way to realize his dream.
Unfortunately, when Kurt goes undrafted, the traditional route to the NFL is closed to him, which means he’ll have to find another way to get noticed, and find other ways to provide for his family in the meantime.
American Underdog is a faith based movie that seems to have little faith in itself.
It should be pointed out that American Underdog is a product of the Kingdom Story Company and is directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin, all of whom specialize in the genre of film known as “faith-based.” Having said that, I’m not sure the audience for whom that description is a plus will be that impressed with the movie they get.
While religion and faith are mentioned, they’re given little more than lip service. In one scene early in Kurt and Brenda’s relationship, she makes it clear that her faith is important to her. Kurt’s reaction implies that faith may not have been that important to him previously. This seems to signal a path for Kurt, one where his new relationship leads to spiritual growth. We never see that. Later Kurt simply speaks of God as a man who has faith, with no indication of how he became that man.
It feels like the faith-based elements were intentionally toned down in order to make the sports movie more palatable for a general audience that might not be so interested in such things. At the same time, the story is sure not to do anything that an audience looking for faith-fueled entertainment might not appreciate. Late in the movie when a tragic event befalls the family, Brenda Warner seems to have a crisis of faith, angry with God for what has happened, but it lasts all of one scene and is never dealt with again. Nobody wants the audience to worry too much that the characters might not be the pinnacle of piousness.
And while it’s likely true that the religious undertones would have turned off a portion of the potential audience, at least it would have given American Underdog something unique to set it apart from other sports movies. The rest of the movie is pretty much by the numbers.
Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin Carry American Underdog on charisma alone.
The chemistry and charisma of Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin is vital to American Underdog because without it there just isn’t much here, and that part works well enough. A handful of incidental characters come in and out of the story at various points, but none of them leave much of an impression or are particularly important. Those looking for a traditional sports movie will need to wait a while because the first half of the story focuses almost exclusively on the relationship dynamics and has surprisingly little actual football in a movie about how a guy became a player in the NFL.
It’s rare that we see Zachary Levi in a completely straight dramatic performance, and if American Underdog tells us anything, it’s that Levi is up to the task. The role isn’t a particularly challenging one; it never asks him to be too emotional, but he handles what he has to work with well. Though it’s hard to overlook the fact that Levi is 41-years-old and, while he absolutely looks younger than that, he plays Kurt Warner from the ages of approximately 22 to 28, and he doesn’t look that young for his age. Anna Paquin, who is slightly younger than Levi, but is playing a woman slightly older than Warner, fairs a little bit better, but just a little.
American Underdog may tell a true story, but that doesn't mean it makes a good movie.
Having said that, the fact that Zachary Levi looks basically the same when he’s supposed to be playing a college kid and when he’s supposed to be playing an NFL quarterback starting in the Super Bowl, is symptomatic of the big problem with American Underdog. We never see change or growth in the character of Kurt Warner any more than we see it in the actor playing him. He’s a great player at the beginning of the movie, and he shows how great he can be at the end. There’s never any moment where Kurt needs to overcome some great obstacle or his own ego in order to be better.
If we’re supposed to believe that Kurt’s growing faith is what makes him ready to pursue his dream, we never see that faith grow and change him as a person. One scene, where Kurt has an early shot at the NFL, implies that Kurt fails because he was unable or unwilling to do the studying necessary before his tryout – but we never saw this earlier, and it is never addressed again so there's no lesson to be learned. The movie seems to want to tell us that it’s Kurt’s decision to commit to his family that allows him to actually achieve his dreams. And yes, the one thing does follow the other in the plot, but they’re never actually connected by the story.
Throughout American Underdog, various characters assure Kurt Warner that he really is that good, and that eventually the world see that... and in the end that’s the movie. We just sit around and wait for the right person to notice how great he is, and once that happens, success follows. It might be the true story, but it doesn't make for a very dramatic movie.
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