I don’t watch a lot of sports movies. In fact, the more the movie is about a particular sport or particular game, as opposed to being about the people who participate (as with the Rocky films), the less likely I am to be interested. We all know the ragtag bunch of misfit kids is going to suddenly form into a master hockey team at the end of the movie and win despite apparent overwhelming odds against them, because it’s their movie. Granted, the protagonists can be expected to win most of the time in any genre, but all too often sports movies make the big game the sole reason for the film, and when it’s a foregone conclusion that doesn’t leave much to watch for.
But when I saw that The Best of Times, a 1986 film directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starred Kurt Russell and Robin Williams, I thought I would give it a shot. It was billed as a comedy more than a sports film, and with those two actors it seemed likely to be more about the people rather than the game. And on that score, it delivers; the big game is the impetus for the action and character growth of the movie, but the character growth is the point.
Williams and Russell play emotionally-stunted characters, in an incredible aversion of type-casting.
The Best of Times is set in the town of Taft, California, where it was also filmed. The film opens with some details on the real history of the town, from its original name of Moron (before that term had any mental associations), to its oil boom days. It then paints a picture of a town that has been in a downward spiral for a long time, exemplified by its success when compared to other towns, and most particularly in the big game. Since the early 1900s, Taft’s biggest high school — the fictional Midway Union High School, though it’s just referred to as “Taft” in all but a few references in the film — has fielded a football team. And every year they play their big game of the season against nearby Bakersfield. And every year, Bakersfield slaughters Taft by 80 points or more. Every year except 1972.
In 1972, the quarterback and captain of the football field was Reno Hightower. Considered a jerk on and off the field, he was nevertheless unparalleled in Taft’s history at not only playing his best, but inspiring his team to play the best. Taft won against several of the other schools under his leadership. And in 1972, he brought Taft the closest they ever came to defeating Bakersfield, in a game that ended with a tie (overtime rules not being in place). But it wasn’t for lack of trying on Reno’s part. His last pass of the game was straight into the hands of third-string wide receiver Jack Dundee. And Jack, with the ball thrown perfectly to his hands, wide open with no defenders between him and the goal line… dropped the ball.
And he’s been dropping the ball ever since.
Reno and Jack never completely recover from failing to win the game. Reno injures his knee while being tackled on the last play, and a victory that would have been one last show of glory ends up a sour note at the end of his football career. 14 years later, Reno (Kurt Russell) is a “van specialist” in Taft, fixing cars and creating elaborate paint jobs for vans. He’s comfortable in Taft, but his wife wants more. Gigi (Pamela Reed) keeps trying to leave him for Los Angeles, but can never make it out of town due to her car breaking down; Reno never fixes it because he still loves her and doesn’t want her to leave.
Jack (Robin Williams) has a different problem. His wife Elly (Holly Palance) is only unhappy in their marriage because Jack’s unhappy in his life; as she says, she’s happy except when Jack is asking if she’s happy. But Jack is haunted by his failure, and is never able to forget it. It doesn’t help that the rest of the town reminds him of it frequently. The worst is his employer and father-in-law, “the Colonel” (Donald Moffat), who is a major backer of Bakersfield; the Colonel never passes up an opportunity to rub it in Jack’s face that he “upheld the natural order” by preventing Taft from beating Bakersfield.
It’s a truly impressive amount of gloating for a man whose team also failed to win.
Jack feels like ever since he dropped the ball, he’s been a loser, and that if he had just caught the ball his whole life would have been better. Finally, Darla (Margaret Whitton), a “masseuse” that he pays to act as a psychological therapist instead of her usual duties, suggests he just play the game over. It’s a silly idea, and Jack says so, but when she asks why not, he can’t think of an answer. (I can think of several, starting with “it’s not the same game”, but this plot device is popular enough in Hollywood that it must make sense to somebody.) The remaining two thirds of the film consists of Jack trying to convince everybody else to go along with the idea, and what happens when they finally do.
I said it’s not a movie about the big game, and it really isn’t. It’s about Jack and Reno and their growth as a result of getting the big game back together again. It’s a light character comedy, with Williams and Russell playing off each other and everybody else; it’s not going to generate any major laughs, but it’s pretty entertaining throughout. Russell is particularly good as the ex-quarterback who is content with leaving his glory days in the past, and who just wants to comfortably idle his way through life. Williams is more restrained than he usually is as the depressed Jack, but he still gets up to some of his usual antics as he manipulates the whole town into getting excited over the idea of the game.
Palance and Reed work well as the wives of the main characters, even if there isn’t a huge difference in their characters’ personalities. The chemistry between the actors playing each couple feels comfortable, as if they’ve known each other and been together for years. And the wives both come across as women who really do love their husbands, but are thoroughly sick of putting up with their hangups. (The families both have kids, but the kids are given so little screen time, they’re pretty much an afterthought.) And Donald Moffat is great as the Colonel; not only does he do a great job of gloating, but he is very convincing as a man who would have Williams’ character so thoroughly cowed that he would be able to gloat day after day for several years.
The Best of Times may not be the funniest comedy around, but it’s fairly entertaining, and whether you watch sports films for the game or for the characters, it should satisfy on either front.