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Thursday, January 23, 2003
The First Page 2 Puffy Finger Awards

By Jim Caple and Eric Neel
Page 2 columnists

First, a question: Why are there so few Super Bowl-related films?

Is the premise, and the spectacle of it, too ludicrous to survive a pitch meeting?

Do writers and directors recoil at the thought of having to somehow reproduce, or even approximate, the stirring drama the game always (snicker) delivers?

Or is it just tough finding actors who can actually throw decent spirals?

"At the Movies with Page 2'' takes a look at four Super Bowl movies ...

"Black Sunday" and "The Sum of All Fears"
Jim Caple: My favorite Super Bowl movie is last year's "The Sum of All Fears." Because they blow up the damn game.

Eric Neel: Just kidding, Mr. Ashcroft.

Sum of All Fears
Woa! You have cell reception? What is that Verizon?
Caple: The plots to "Black Sunday'' and "The Sum of All Fears'' are the same. Terrorists plot to blow up the Super Bowl. "Black Sunday'' is superior for one simple reason. (I mean, other than the fact that Ben Affleck wasn't in it). Actual Super Bowl footage. The director just didn't make up a couple fictional teams for his movie. Those are the Cowboys and the Steelers playing in the stadium.

I can't stand it when producers are too cheap to pay the league licensing fees and resort to making up a couple lame teams. That's your first and most important clue to knowing a sports movie isn't any good -- if the teams really exist or not. The only two movies that make fictional teams work are "The Natural" and "Slapshot." And that's because the attention to detail and authenticity everywhere else is so good that you easily believe the teams really do exist.

Neel: Jim, you ignorant slut. How many people did you sleep with to get this job?

Sorry, just had to say that.

No, really, I agree, you need the authenticity. Just a glimmer of the real thing makes the drama-factor go up tenfold. Even if Timothy Robbins is the pitcher.

Caple: Look, I'm willing to accept that Tobey McGuire has the proportionate strength of a spider, shoot webs out of his wrists and crawls up vertical walls. I can swallow that the Serengeti plains are populated by little meercats that speak English, sound like Nathan Lane and reference American pop culture. I can even buy that Harrison Ford found Anne Heche attractive in "Six Days and Seven Nights."

Sum of All Fears
"Mr. President! J-Lo! Are you guys OK?"
But when asked to believe that the Chicago Rockets are playing the Alabama Gators in the Super Bowl, I'm sorry, that's where I draw the line.

Neel: My whole thing is that they don't go far enough with the made-up names and logos. They try, in a half-assed, "Let's-get-my-cousin-to-design-the-unis" way, to seem real. What do they think -- that we're going to forget which teams are actually in the league? They should have a little fun with it.

Caple: Of course, it would be hard to come up with a more offensive name than Redskins.

Neel: In addition to the Rockets, the Gators and Ben Affleck in a leading role, "Sum of All Fears" is a terrible, completely implausible film ('cuz, you know, plausibility is what I want in my blow-up-the-Super-Bowl flicks).

That said, the fact that they actually blew up the game and a stadium full of folks surprised me.

I figured there had to be some sort of calm-in-the-face-of-chaos, McGyver-with-a-paper-clip-and-some-chewing-gum rescue effort. Morgan Freeman's scanning the crowd, and I'm seeing all those faces of kids and innocent, idiotic fans all dressed and painted up, and I'm thinking, This is shameless, get to saving 'em already, why don't ya?

Then, whoosh, boom. Game's up.

Caple: Sort of like Doug Williams lighting it up against the Broncos.

Neel: Color me innocent and stupid. Tell me I've been brainwashed by years of hype. Say I'm too wrapped up in sports to see what really matters, but I didn't see it coming. I thought the game and the crowd were untouchable -- they could be threatened, yeah, hang in the balance, sure, but not blown up, not in a Hollywood movie.

Black Sunday
The most frightening 70's phenomenon next to the Osmonds.
Caple: Britney Spears' pants, however, remain sacrosant.

Neel: John Frankenheimer directed both "Sum of All Fears" and "Black Sunday," by the way. And, for what it's worth, both films also came out in the wake of real-world international tragedies: "Sum" soon after September 11th, and "Black Sunday" was developed in part as a response to the tragedy at the Munich Olympics.

Why do they choose the Super Bowl?

Caple: You mean, other than that it's what the league deserves after giving us Paul McCartney singing with Terry Bradshaw last year?

Neel: As Warren Sapp said during Media Day, it's because "It is what it is" -- the biggest, sloppiest, most strangely captivating gig in the West. If you're hoping to make a political or artistic statement or if you want to show how ain't none of us as safe and cozy as we like to think, or if you just want to use mudwrestling supermodel lesbians to sell beer -- do it at the Super Bowl.

I give "Black Sunday'' one big puffy finger up and "The Sum of All Fears'' one big puffy finger down.

Caple: I agree.

By the way, that's Le Stadium Olympique that gets blown up in "The Sum of All Fears." We can only wish.

"Ace Ventura"
Caple: I've never been a big fan of Jim Carrey, who is sort of a cross between Carrot Top and Roberto Begnini, only he's not quite as subtle as either.

Ace Ventura
OK, put the card down. No one is going to hurt you.
Neel: Carrey's like that four-year-old neighbor kid who's learned about three steps worth of tap dancing and his mom brings him over to show you what he can do and he just keeps scuffing up your newly waxed floors and grinning at you like the little destructive maniac he is, and you laugh, not because he's funny, but because you fear him, because you think he's capable of snapping any minute, if he hasn't snapped already.

Caple: What I get a kick out of most is his annual angst over getting snubbed for an Academy Award nomination. He probably looks at Kim Basinger and figures, "Well, if she can win an Oscar, I at least deserve a nomination." But for what? "The Majestic"? What a piece of crap that was. Against my better judgment, I dragged a couple to see it on a rare night when they could arrange a sitter for their daughter. They still hold it against me. And they should. Honestly, the only way I could possibly make it up to them is to pay for their daughter's entire college education.

And yet, Carrey expected an Oscar nomination for his "work" in that awful movie. Apparently, he assumes a "serious" acting performance means you didn't light your farts in a movie.

Neel: He's like the Super Bowl -- all wild and trumped-up, and with nothing worth watching after the first few minutes.

Caple: The best part of "Ace Ventura" is Ray Finkle, the psychotic placekickerwwho goes nuts after missing a game-winning field goal attempt in the Super Bowl. And blames the place-holder for not holding the ball with the "laces out." Laces out! Laces out! Great line. Whenever a friend has a nut-out, you should just yell, "Laces out! Laces out!" to remind him to calm down.

Neel: Love that moment. It reminds me of golfers -- Tiger especially -- going agro over some little old lady in the gallery with a camera snapping a shot as they're in their backswing. Seriously, if that little bit of noise sets you off, I'm sorry, but just exactly how good are you? Just once, I'd like to see the old lady shout back, "Hey Tiger, laces out, honey." It would be like that line in "Say Anything," when Lloyd tells the guy at the party, "You must chill!"

Caple: Kick-boxing, sport of the future. But that's a subject for another day.

Neel: Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino is in "Ace Ventura," playing Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and he delivers all the power and emotion he was famous for in his Isotoner glove commercials.

Caple: You know what I like? I like when athletes portray themselves in a movie and still aren't convincing.

Neel: Who's in the hall of fame of athletes who can't play themselves? My vote goes to Ali in "The Greatest"-- it's like Phil Hartman as Frankenstein has inhabited his body.

Ace Ventura
Carrey modeled this character on Scott Norwood right after Super Bowl XXV.
Caple: Here's the question. With your life hanging on whether New York Times theater critic Vincent Canby gives you a favorable review, which quarterback do you pick to star as Willy Loman in your production of "Death of a Salesman"? Do you go with Dan Marino or Brett Favre?

Neel: Fran Tarkenton.

Caple: I give "Ace Ventura" one big puffy finger down, way down.

Neel: I give "Ace Ventura'' one big puffy finger UP/DOWN And bonus points if you can identify Tarkenton's performance.

"Heaven Can Wait"
Caple: My favorite Super Bowl movie by far is "Heaven Can Wait," a terrific film that usually gets ignored whenever anyone brings up lists of the best sports movies. A remake of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," it's a nice romantic fantasy about Rams quarterback Tom Jarrett (Warren Beatty), who "accidentally" dies, goes to heaven and is returned to earth in the body of billionaire Leo Farnsworth (still Beatty). He then buys the Rams, installs himself as quarterback, falls in love with Julie Christie and reaches the Super Bowl.

I know all that sounds ridiculous -- I mean, Farnsworth never threatens to move the team even once -- but I guarantee you it makes a helluva lot more sense than a major studio signing Tom Green to a contract for five movies. Or green-lighting a "Country Bears" movie. All the actors in it are wonderful -- Beatty, Christie, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Buck Henry, Jack Warden and especially Charles Grodin, as Beattie's "personal private executive secretary."

Neel: It's funny -- I'd forgotten this was a Super Bowl movie. I know it's a football movie (and he actually plays for the Los Angeles Rams, a more or less real team at the time), but I remember it as a movie about a guy scrambling to get a shot at something he'd lost. I remember Beatty, in what is maybe one of his two or three loosest, easiest performances, just charming the hell out of everyone who gets in his way.

Caple: Granted, it's a complete fantasy, but the only scene that doesn't ring true is the cheesy post-game interview in the locker room, where there are like half a dozen players and four reporters. And that's it. An actual locker room celebration scene is a bit like a stag party hosted by Allen Iverson, only more crowded and chaotic.

Neel: I really like Warden in this. He plays a similar sort of role years later in "While You Were Sleeping," actually. In both movies, he's the guy who knows more than anyone else does about the protagonist, he's the confidant, and the only tie the protagonist has to the real world, to him/herself. In both, Jack's the perfect combination of crusty and sappy. He doesn't want to believe, but he can't help himself.

Caple: I give "Heaven Can Wait" one big puffy finger up, way, way up.

Heaven Can Wait
Don't even think about it, Jerry Jones!
Neel: I give it one big puffy finger up.

But I still think it's impossible to make a movie about the Super Bowl (excepting, of course, the fine work of Steve Sabol and the folks at NFL Films) that anyone would ever want to see. It's impossible to succeed if you make the Super Bowl the thing (take a look at TNT's "Second String" from earlier this year as exhibit A), but if you put it at the edges, so you get at what it represents, you've got a shot. You could screw that shot up -- by casting Ben Affleck or Jim Carrey -- but you could get it right, too -- by putting all the dread and import of its peril in Robert Shaw's face, or by putting all the fantasy of it in Beatty's second-chance body.

Caple: The interesting thing is there may be even fewer movies about the World Series. There are a lot of movies about teams reaching the World Series, but damn few about the series themselves.

Neel: So here's my question: You hear people say all the time that movies aren't sports movies, even when they have sports in them; and they say this like it's a good thing, like there's nothing universally interesting or valuable in sports at all. I hate when people say it, but I'm thinking about these Super Bowl movies and I'm wondering, Is it true that sports movies are best when they aren't really about sports?

Caple: Yes. And that's because sports are best when they aren't really about sports.

And that concludes this installment of "Page 2 at the Movies.'' Join us next time when we review the finest Continental Tire Bowl movies. Until then, the press box is closed.

Neel: Oh, and by the way, Tarkenton guest-hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1977 a week after losing the Super Bowl. And he was pretty good.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com and Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.