CATEGORIES Action, Comedy, Documentary, Independent, Sports, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Cinematical Indie, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
We can do without another baseball comedy -- or any other team sports comedy for that matter. Despite their having their devout, built-in audiences (Martha will see any soccer film, for instance), these movies haven't done anything interesting for the game or the cinema since the first incarnation of The Bad News Bears came out thirty years ago. One way to add a bit of freshness to the field, though, is to go with an unfamiliar or unrecognized sport. It worked for Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and now it works for Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, a whimsical mockumentary set in the world of competitive paintball.
Blackballed stars The Daily Show's Rob Corddry as Bobby Dukes, a paintball legend who returns to the game after a ten year ban for "wiping," a form of cheating where a player wipes off the paint he's been hit with before a referee notices. His homecoming is not very welcome, though, as nobody has forgotten about his crooked deed, and none of his old teammates (including fellow Daily Show correspondent Ed Helms) will rejoin him for The Hudson Valley Paintball Classic. So in true sports comedy fashion, Dukes rallies up a varied team of misfit underdogs and with them tries to beat rival Sam Brown (Rob Huebel) to win back his honor.
The main reason that these divergent sports comedies succeed is their multi-leveled limitlessness. For one thing, a movie like Blackballed is not bound by the expectations of sports fans, so many of who go for the ball play as much as, if not more than, the screenplay. While it certainly has its own share of enthusiasts, paintball is not that popular, and so it becomes a more incidental element, allowing for more freedom in the movie's plot and humor. Of course there are people who think the sport of paintball is ridiculous — perhaps they include the filmmakers — and for them it is actually integral to the comedy in the form of mockery.
For me, the sport was represented in its full absurdity in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and it was already handled with impressive wit in an episode of the British series Spaced. So I treated the setting as incidental and let my laughter and my enjoyment come about through other aspects, such as the film's impressive assembly of improv performers, most of which are members of the brilliant Upright Citizens Brigade. Paul Scheer, Rob Riggle, Curtis Gwinn and Seth Morris play the members of Duke's team, and just as they're used to doing at the UCB Theater, where they were each responsible for coming up with their own dialogue on the spot. Although the film's story was developed by Brian Sternberg with director Brant Sersen, there was no screenplay written. As anyone who has watched an improvisational show is aware, this can lead to some amazingly random lines, many of which are hilarious, but some of which are pretty dumb.
Corddry left the UCB long ago and has since become the most prominent fake news correspondent on The Daily Show, his current status having been helped by the recent departures of Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert. In that world of political deadpan, Corddry is consistently the funniest, mainly because his inability to keep a straight face on most nights conveys a humble, good-time attitude, but also because the interviews he does show that he's willing to do anything.
The question, though, is can he do anything? In Blackballed part of what makes him so hysterical is the reminder of his shtick on The Daily Show. His style carries over into the movie, unlike the way his former co-worker Carrell has exhibited tremendous versatility in his own migration to films and network television. Of course, what did we know about Carrell before last year? Perhaps if Corddry had been given one bit of dialogue in Old School, he too could have been a scene stealer. We will never know. The fact is that every one of the cast of Blackballed, no matter their range, should be getting prime comedy roles at a time when three unfunny jerks can star in a pathetic hit like The Benchwarmers.
Blackballed's troupe is also superior to the lot continually appearing in Christopher Guest's films, and thanks to previous work directing docs about hardcore bands, Sersen shows more comfort with and command of the style than Guest does. After Guest's A Mighty Wind, it was easy to think the mockumentary genre had been tortured, strangled, and then had died one of those hammy deaths involving overdone chest grabbing. But Blackballed feels as vivacious as This Is Spinal Tap. There isn't the same labored yet quotable wit in Blackballed that you'll find in some of the scripted satires, but part of the fun of improvisation is its spontaneous lack of polish. Blackballed never feels forced, and as a veteran of too many basic acting classes, I know that funny and natural improvisation is a difficult thing.
There may be people who consider Blackballed to be an extended sketch, but most of the best comedy from Buster Keaton to The Marx Brothers to Stella could be classified the same way. It is the basic simplicity of a single idea that becomes merely a springboard and a platform for endless possibilities. Just imagine what Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Buster could have done on the paintball field (on second thought, don't ruin the movie with such daydreams). And Blackballed isn't even so wacky and anarchic that it feels excusive for being one-note. Instead, it feels as conventional as a baseball comedy without sounding as processed as one (and without having any baseball), and we can always make do with something as original as that.