National Lampoon's Blackball
February 11th, 2005
The only thing more confusing than a very American humor magazine putting its name on this veddy British comedy is why the owners of the once-revered National Lampoon name continue to dilute their imprint with a not very funny film that shares very little in common with the anarchic humor of the magazine, the live shows, the records or the movies that made the Lampoon name so venerated in the first place.
One might say your enjoyment in the film may be based on your familiarity with the sport of Bowls, but considering how poorly the film did upon its British release, that argument probably would be met with the same stony silence most audiences will have for the film.
Bowls is, basically, a stuffy British version of lawn bowling, and to Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye), that stodginess is part of the problem. Taught by his grandfather Mutley (Bernard Cribbins), a kindly contractor who also officiates at the Royal Torquay Bowls Club, Cliff may be one of the best bowlers in all of England, but his uncouth behavior and unkempt clothing hurts him in the eyes of the club members, especially Ray Speight (James Cromwell), the twenty-five time county Bowls champion who lives the game through a rigid set of rules: the three A’s (approach, assess and aim), the three B’s (bend, balance and breathe) and the three T’s (target, tempo and… well, we never exactly learn what the third T is, as his demonstration where he expounds on his form is interrupted by a screaming Cliff, although we can assume it to be toss). Cliff’s one opportunity to properly enter the club is the annual County Championships qualifying round, which is open to all comers. One by one and round by round, Cliff, who is to Bowls what John McEnroe was to tennis, gives each challenger an unmerciful beating, finding himself against his nemesis Ray. Cliff resoundingly defeats Ray, but Cliff’s bad boy ways get him not only disqualified from the championship but (thanks to the United Kingdom Bowls Committee Official Codes and Regulation Rulebook, which just happens to have been written by one Ray Speight) banned from all Bowls competitions worldwide for twenty years.
Just as Cliff has lost all hope, enter Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughn), a slick American sports agent who sees in Cliff a golden opportunity to tap into an unexploited market. Using his considerable marketing skills, Rick catapults Cliff into the national spotlight, signing up loads of endorsements deals and building the hype to such a fever pitch that Rick is able to get the BBC to pony up millions of Euros for the broadcast rights to the next world Bowls championship, the first to be broadcast across the airwaves in more than forty years. On the condition that Cliff’s ban be revoked and roll on the same team as Ray Speight.
While “Blackball” does have some interesting social commentary concerning the gap between generations, the meaning of celebrity and the uncomfortable coupling of sports and advertising, its messages are lost in a sea of clichéd moments and characterizations. Cliff’s best friend is a fat, scruffy buffoon, and Cliff’s cute and perky would-be love interest is, naturally, the daughter of his rival. The two men who most despise each other must work together through their combined animosity for honor and their country. The bigger a celebrity Cliff becomes, the bigger a jerk he turns into, until a moment of clarity just before his big moment of truth puts him on the right path to redemption. And, like many sports stories and the movies of Jackie Chan, the hero must be pummeled to the very edge of defeat during his most important battle, before finding the strength in himself to grasp victory, get the girl and find a new level of understanding with his former adversary. Director Mel Smith, whose best known to American audiences as either the director of “Bean” or the Albino from “The Princess Bride,” is a capable if nondescript comedic director, but Tim Firth’s script lacks a modicum of emotional heft or character development to make this a worthwhile effort. Ray's daughter Kerry (the appealing Alice Evans), for example, is a completely unnecessary character, awkwardly introduced outside an event neither she nor Cliff should be at in the first place, and then given little to do. (Even the expected friction between Cliff and Ray, because Cliff is seeing Ray's daughter, never materializes.) Ditto current Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton, who, as one of Ray's fellow club members and admirers, shows up from time to time for no other reason than she's Imelda Staunton.
Paul Kaye, a minor celebrity in Britain who looks the genetic fusing of Gary Oldman and Jamie Kennedy, is engaging enough, someone you can still root for even when he's being a total tosser, and both Cromwell and Vaughn do their best with the weak material they've been given, although one must question why they ever got involved in this project in the first place. Surely both of them could afford a nice vacation to the English Riviera.
If you miss "National Lampoon's Blackball" in theatres, which won't be that hard since the film is only opening in seven theatres in five secondary markets, you can always catch it on video. You'll only have five days to wait.
My rating: C-