Blackball (2003) / Comedy-Drama
aka National Lampoon's Blackball
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Alice Evans, Vince Vaughn, Johnny Vegas, Bernard Cribbins, Mark Little, Ian McNeice, Mark Dymond
Director: Mel Smith
Screenplay: Tim Firth
Review published February 20, 2005
It seems the folks at National Lampoon found an independent film they consider to be just lowbrow enough for them to buy out the rights to in Blackball, an over-the-top comedy surrounding the game of lawn bowling in the UK. This is yet another comedy where an uncouth, ill-bred young man challenges the upper-crust, snobby rich folks at their own game, making a mockery of it, and all the while beating them at their own game. In many respects, it seems all too familiar, especially to anyone who has seen Men with Brooms, which features a nearly identical game played on ice, curling. Both films have only one thing going for it -- the game itself seems to be rife with silly possibilities, as it is inherently funny to watch, and takes itself as a very serious form of sport. However, they also inject standard movie clichés, including a mostly unnecessary, and unconvincing, romance subplot. It's always a bad move in a screwball comedy to take your own characters and plot too seriously, and for long stretches, director Mel Smith (Bean, The Tall Guy) fancies Blackball as a movie worth taking seriously.
For many years, Ray Speight (James Cromwell, The Sum of All Fears) has been the local champion in the game of bowls (lawn bowling), and is as skillful on the field in besting his challengers as he is in using the strict rules of the game to ensure worthy opponents have a hard time rising to his level. He meets his match in the most unlikely of challengers, a crass slob named Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye), who has an unrefined style that the longtime players consider a disgrace to the game they hold dear. Still, Starkey climbs the ranks and has the honor of facing Speight, and winning, only to end up being banned by the official league for 15 years for writing the word "tosser" on his scorecard, apparently a no-no in the bowling rules. Starkey, now cut loose from the bowling league, takes on an agent (Vince Vaughn, Old School), and becomes the bad boy of bowls, doing and saying the most outrageous things in order to gain attention to his own side league. As if this weren't an annoyance enough for Speight, Starkey has also begun seeing his lovely daughter, Kerry (Alice Evans, 102 Dalmatians), which takes an already sour situation and makes it intolerable.
Blackball is little more than an amalgam of many of the most popular sports movies covering traditional gaming sports played by mostly older men in serious fashion. The scoundrel dating the best player's daughter is lifted straight from Caddyshack, while the on the field antics feels very much at home in another golf movie, Happy Gilmore. The aforementioned Men with Brooms has already spoofed the breaking of a traditional game with flashy sportsmanship, and there has even been a comedy about lawn bowling, if you can believe it, made in Australia in 2002, Crackerjack. In short, Blackball is redundant ten times over, with the same rich vs. poor stereotypes you've seen in comedies since time immemorial.
Personally speaking, I like these sorts of sports movies, but there are two things which makes Blackball a poor example of how to make an outrageous sports flick. First, the comedy is not funny at all. Part of the reason is that Paul Kaye is extremely unlikable in the lead role, looking a bit like a cross between Marilyn Manson and Gary Oldman, without much charisma or romantic appeal, which is especially critical to make the romance, which constitutes a great deal of the film's short running time, fly. The rest of the cast feel like they are on autopilot for the movie. James Cromwell has a one-dimensional role, and has trouble making a convincing Brit, with an accent that is faintly detectable, and sometimes not at all. Vince Vaughn arrives for some much-needed adrenaline, and yet, he is manic without having the accompanying pith to make his energetic performance funny. He comes off more as desperate.
The second reason why Blackball misfires comes from the stretches of drama in between the zany comedy. In almost all successful second and third-tier sports films, like Dodgeball, Kingpin, and Happy Gilmore, the off-the-field antics are just as funny as on -- at all times. The romance is played as light and goofy as the rest of it, and we can take it as being just another device for comedic laughs. However, the makers of Blackball just can't seem to find the humor in anything not related to bastardizing the game of bowls, so they have opted not to even bother trying, letting the drama drag down the comedic momentum, with characters that aren't worth the time to try to invest any character development for.
Without many laughs and with long stretches of boredom, Blackball is little more than a one-note sports film that has no fresh ideas or comic energy of its own, content to be just another retread of more successful vehicles. The potential for something worthwhile was here, but this film, like much of the comedy contained within, ends up in the gutter.
©2005 Vince Leo