The incredible true story of a large and handsome man who was good at football and — thanks to his enduring faith in Jesus Christ — never gave up on his dream of playing it for enormous sums of money, Andrew and Jon Erwin’s “American Underdog” doesn’t quite sell the “against the odds” angle promised by its title. Which isn’t to say that Kurt Warner’s mythic rise from Cedar Falls supermarket clerk to the oldest Super Bowl-winning quarterback in NFL history was unworthy of being adapted into a mawkishly competent sports biopic, only that it’s kind of miraculous when anyone manages to become a famous athlete (as this movie’s opening narration spells out for us in statistical detail), and the Erwin brothers fail to contort Warner’s story into especially compelling evidence of all things possible.
Inspired by Warner’s memoir “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the First Miracle Season,” “American Underdog” is basically “Rudy” if Rudy Ruettiger had been played by an ultra-yoked superhero (“Shazam!” star Zachary Levi) instead of a po-ta-toes-obsessed hobbit. Unlike the pint-sized benchwarmer who was carried off the field during his senior year at Notre Dame, however, Warner has to wait a bit longer for his Wheaties box moment (despite a throwing arm with enough firepower to earn a spot on Lauren Boebert’s Christmas card).
And during that wait, his passion and belief are blitzed a hundred times over by the complications of life outside the ivied walls of higher education. He falls in love with a line-dancing divorcee named Brenda (Anna Paquin), promises to help raise her baby daughter and legally blind son, and struggles to uphold that commitment without letting himself down after being cut from the Green Bay Packers on the second day of camp.
Like so many of the faith-based biopics that have helped turn the genre into a flyover-state phenomenon, “American Underdog” is sustained by a vaguely fetishistic enthusiasm for its subject’s hardships (in this case: poverty, tornadoes, and a wife whose devotion to Jesus Christ is only surpassed by her devotion to bad wigs). For every 10 seconds of football action, we get 10 minutes of Levi staring into the camera like a deer in the headlights and wondering “why God would give me a dream that’s never gonna come true.” What kind of cruel deity would bless someone with the upper body of a small mountain range, only to curse them with the responsibilities of a human adult? Make it make sense!
Of course, the Erwin brothers — wildly dynamic filmmakers whose recent Walmart products range from faith-based music biopics like “I Still Believe” to faith-based football biopics like “Woodlawn” and this one — have become the leading auteurs of megachurch cinema because their movies could be confused for secular fare if you squint. Telling stories that emphasize general hardships over religious persecution and keep the God talk at a low whisper until the third act, the Erwins tend to eschew the Newsmax crowd in favor of Trojan horsing their way onto the godless screens of America’s multiplexes, and “American Underdog” is the duo’s most agnostic bid for mainstream success thus far.
Jesus has a smaller part in this movie than he did in the real Kurt Warner’s Super Bowl victory speech, and aside from one lifeless scene about Brenda’s relationship with her lord and savior — and the general anti-dramatic flatness of a film in which every Hail Mary is eventually rewarded with a touchdown — there isn’t all that much separating “American Underdog” from “The Blind Side.” Levi’s newly refurbished star power lends the film a commercial pedigree that was lacking from the Erwins’ previous stuff, even if his wide-eyed work is undone by the same “but I’m just a ridiculously oversized child!” schtick that made him so much fun in “Shazam!” (but that might explain why no one even tries to de-age the 41-year-old Levi during Kurt’s college years).
Paquin, meanwhile, has the opposite effect; her involvement might not do as much to bridge the gap between Pure Flix and Hollywood, but she adds legitimacy to “American Underdog” by rescuing her character from bad dialogue and worse denim in what might be the most nuanced performance that anyone used to Kevin Sorbo movies has ever seen (a suspicion that only grows more pronounced whenever a right-wing ass-hat like Adam Baldwin shows up in a supporting role). Bruce McGill spices things up as an arena football coach, Dennis Quaid is definitely another actor who appears on screen, and young Hayden Zaller is completely endearing as Brenda’s visually impaired son, and he and Paquin manage to score a manipulative jolt of raw emotion when they team up for a trick play in the fourth quarter — quite a feat in a film that vacillates between eye-rolling and tolerable with a baseline of braindead watchability.
Is “American Underdog” a good movie? Not even a little bit, but that’s kind of like saying “The Power of the Dog” is a bad microwave toaster. Traditional metrics of quality hardly seem relevant when it comes to a biopic that’s less interested in satisfying any narrative conflict than it is in paying off its protagonist’s spiritual investment. Dinging the Erwins’ direction for its flatness (every scene, no matter where it takes place, somehow manages to look like it was shot in a supermarket) or picking apart their threadbare script for its failure to dramatize Warner’s one big flaw (we’re warned a zillion times that Kurt bails at the first sign of adversity both on the field and in real life, despite the fact that he’s depicted as the most tenacious man who’s ever lived) would be missing the point.
With “American Underdog,” the Erwins have turned the life story of a man who came out of the womb with 214 pounds’ worth of shoulders into a modern parable about the miracles that Jesus makes possible for those who have the audacity to believe in him — and by extension in themselves. I can’t imagine a better way to honor the commercial spirit of American Christianity than with a story about someone who was born with the biggest advantage he could possibly have, and still felt like their success was the result of praying to the right God.
“American Underdog” is now playing in theaters.
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