NetFlix Review #21: White Men Can't Jump

In the last review for Role Models "charm" and "humor" became a central point of conversation. It's going to come up again here, because this is a movie that uses a foundation of charm and humor to build an actual story and show us something interesting, something we've never quite seen before.

I've been curious to see this movie for a long time for one very odd reason: rumor has it this is one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films. I'm not a zealous Kubrick devotee like some people I know (Charlie Wilson), but I think the man frequently touched genius. He's certainly a fascinating dude in many ways, but the concept that this was one of his favorites kind of blows my mind. What did he see in it?

Now having seen the movie, I think I've got a possible explanation. Kubrick was notorious for having his films be cold, distant and controlling. He was a renowned micro-manager and a complete obsessive. His movies are filled with stunning detail, gorgeous production and tightly controlled technical tours des forces. He also seemed to be someone fascinated in the worlds beyond him, and what must have felt more beyond him as a filmmaker than the kind of loose, improvisational style. Also, as an exceptional formalist he must have been intrigued by the film's unusual construction. I could see him finding it an amusing puzzle of a movie, as that it certainly is.

It is noteworthy how unusual the film's structure is. First of all, it's a con movie that obeys none of the rules of the con movies - the big con happens in the middle of the movie, the possible betrayal turns out to be a real betrayal, and doesn't lead to former partners becoming enemies, but to a very anti-climactic forgive and forget. The whole film is structured along similar lines, with every moment that should be a grand denouement - the competition, the Jeopardy game, the match against the old pros - is dramatically undercut. The form is the message, though, as writer/director Ron Shelton understands that in the dodge, just like in sports in general, there is no one big score or one big game that becomes a defining moment. After every championship starts another season, and after every con is another hustle. For people who take on something so challenging, so completely engrossing, it only ends when the body gives out, when they simply and absolutely cannot win any longer.

Shelton understands sports, and the compulsions of the people who work hard enough at them to play professionally. He is, after all, the man behind Bull Durham, regarded by many to be one of the greatest sports movies of all time. He also did Blue Chips, Tin Cup and the, in my opinion, unfairly maligned and pretty fantastic Cobb. Shelton's grasp on sports comes from having lived it, he played five seasons of baseball on a triple-a farm team, and he uses that understanding to put across on screen a truth that few sports movies ever touch on - for these men, saying baseball or basketball or golf is a "way of life" is indeed true, and that truth has some rather serious ramifications.

Just look at the way Woody Harrelson's character is constantly chiding Wesley Snipes that he would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. Snipes' character is definitely a showboat, but it's Snipes who cons Harrelson by playing poorly and looking bad only to have actually won by fixing the game, meanwhile it's Harrelson who loses money on trying to prove the movie's title false, a vain attempt to make himself look better than he is. The question the movie inherently brings up is how does one define "winning," not just in sports but in life? Everyone in the movie is, to some degree, a winner. Snipes and Harrelson are a fairly unstoppable team on the court, so much so that Shelton wisely never puts much dramatic stock in whether or not they'll actually win. Rosie Perez's character sweeps Jeopardy, but of course she would. The question is how will they handle their winnings? It's also to Shelton's credit that he doesn't make anyone a simple dichotemy - great on the court, terrible at home. Snipes is trying to build a legitimate business aside from his hustling so he can move his family out of their bad neighborhood apartment into a house. Harrelson and Perez are seen as having a very warm and loving relationship. Their scenes together have an easy comfort to them that makes it feel like a very real relationship, not a gimmicky movie one. Snipes marriage, although we see less of it, is similarly healthy and nurtured. These are men with a lot of skill and charisma who have found great partners and are fighting to make their way. So why do they still feel like, and occasionally act like, losers?

Having mentioned the women, I'd like to draw particular attention to them again here, as here is another place where Shelton raises this movie far above standard fare. Usually in sports movies you get two kinds of women, the loyal wife of a respectable gamesman, or the practically faceless arm candy of the womanizing player. Both roles are largely insubstantial and only serve as props for the male characters. Here both women are their own people. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is the kitchen confrontation between Perez and Snipes' wife, played by Tyra Ferrell. Both women have their own wants and desires, and they neither placate their men with saintly patience, nor are they shrews. You can see why both men, competitive and demanding, would choose these women - by all appearances they are probably the best to be found.

Outside of all of this, the movie is also ridiculously entertaining. Snipes and Harrelson are a joy to watch. They layer their characters with an almost effortless ease. Snipes' transitions between loudmouth street hustler, gentle family man and professional businessman are so fluid you don't even see it happen. Harrelson exudes such charisma, such sheer joy and goofy amiability that it becomes disheartening to reflect on how he missed becoming an a-list star.

It's interesting writing this review after Role Models, as this is a movie that could have easily been a paint-by-numbers sports comedy, but Shelton took the time to craft a film that defies expectations and surprises the audience with its intelligent yet playful ruminations on the games men play. Even the movie's only slight misstep, a subplot about criminals Harrelson and Perez owe money to, pays off with a solid undercutting of expectations. It's a film that wins, while also looking exceptionally good. I get it now, Kubrick. Well played.