Wednesday, August 7, 2013

From the Archives: The Best of Times

Yes, I'm still recycling, but there's a method to the madness.  Football is almost upon us, and that means it's time . . . for The Best of Times.  This piece was also originally published in RVA Magazine.  Enjoy!

From the Archives:
The Best of Times

What is it?
The Best of Times is a 1986 comedy starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell.  In the film, the two reside in the small town of Taft, where lovable loser Jack Dundee (Williams) is still haunted by the pass from local hero Reno Hightower (Russell) that he dropped in the big football game 13 years ago.  Dundee decides to stage the game once again in the hopes of atoning for his biggest mistake, but first he has to sell this ridiculous idea to both the town and his former teammates.  Once he manages to do that, it will be a miracle if he can get his old team in shape, and speaking of miracles, do you think Jack can actually catch the ball this time out?

Why don’t I know about it?
The film didn’t win over many critics or audiences when it debuted, and despite being televised routinely after its release and gaining a meager following, The Best of Times never really evolved into a true sleeper either.

What makes it unique?
Before Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Blue Chips, Cobb, The Great White Hype, Tin Cup, Play it to the Bone) gained notoriety for creating some of the best-received sports films ever made, he wrote this little gem for Kings Road Entertainment.  Shelton got the idea for the film when the high school he attended in Santa Barbara actually re-staged several big games against rival San Marcos in the early 80s as part of a fund-raising effort.  The first such game was a huge success, selling out, and according to Shelton sub-sequent games were also successful until the practice was discontinued due to injuries. 
Shelton has some issues with the piece, most notably his displeasure in regards to an epilogue left unfilmed.  He also doesn’t like some of director Roger Spottiswoode’s choices, though he claims that the studio gave the director a tough time.  Shelton wasn’t pleased with the publicity the film received either, and as far as business relationships are concerned, he writes the whole thing off as a very bad experience.
Kurt Russell was already a budding star when this picture was made, but Williams was just a zany comic with some success in television and a few mediocre films under his belt who would hit the big time with Good Morning, Vietnam a year later in 1987.  They have great chemistry here, and the film works best when it is centered squarely on their shoulders, yet they have never shared the screen again. 
When I was composing this piece I couldn’t find any commentary from the stars themselves.  That leads me to believe that this film probably doesn’t rank among their personal favorites, though it is entirely possible that they have made comments to the contrary that aren’t currently available.
For the most part, this is a truly a forgotten film within the industry.  Despite the star power and the creativity at work behind-the-scenes, there isn’t a lot of fanfare for this one to be found.  In fact, while I was putting this piece together, I didn’t find any retrospectives or features devoted to The Best of Times, though I should not that there are a wealth of forums and reviews where fans express their strong feelings for the film.

Is it any good?
I have loved this picture for a long time.  I have loved this movie for at least as long as I have loved football, and that’s a very long time indeed.  It is a bit clumsy in places and I know the stars of this piece have certainly offered up better performances, but this will always be a personal favorite of mine for a variety of reasons. 
First off, Kurt was at a point here where he could no wrong, and his Reno Hightower is a joy to watch.  Kurt doesn’t miss a beat throughout this irreverent and ultimately heart-warming little oddity.  Williams is often a bit much for yours truly, but here he is subdued enough (and trust me, a subdued Robin Williams is still a lot like you or I on crack) to amuse me without annoying me.  His Jack Dundee is a wounded man, but seldom has another man’s misery been so incredibly funny to behold.  The scene where he goes to a massage parlor and pays someone to listen to his agonizing self-dissection, all of which is based upon dropping the football in the big game, is one of his funniest bits ever, and he is consistently amusing throughout. 
While clearly the stars of the piece, Russell and Williams receive a lot of help from a great cast.  M. Emmet Walsh, R.G. Armstrong, Pamela Reed, Holly Palance, and Donald Moffat are all game for this quirky comedy, and everyone brings some humor to the mix.  Everyone fares well unless they happen to be involved in a poorly-staged song and dance routine that is positively embarrassing to behold and nearly drags the whole affair into oblivion.  Yet the film survives and offers up several far more entertaining and memorable setpieces along the way.   
Williams and Russell are both at the top of their game throughout, and their reliable performances are a model of consistency.  This is my favorite film featuring Robin Williams, and in truth I like Russell’s Reno Hightower almost as much as I like Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, and R.J. MacReady.  That’s high praise indeed coming from yours truly, and if you don’t believe that you need to take another look at my Top 5 John Carpenter Films.   
Additionally, the home stretch is definitely a crowd-pleaser.  The film that stumbles occasionally in the first and second acts really nails the big game in the third act.  Russell is truly magnificent, and the fire and determination he shows in this muddy battle makes you want to go out and block for him.  The film becomes surprisingly dramatic as the contest unfolds, and it’s hard not to cheer when fate is kind enough to offer Jack a shot at redemption in the closing seconds. 

The verdict:
The Best of Times isn’t a great picture, yet it still works.  Don’t be surprised if there are a few scenes in the mix that are so bad you can’t comprehend why they weren’t cut altogether, and yet don’t be surprised if you do find yourself incredibly moved by the silly happenings of this fun little film.  It’s whimsical, it’s absurd, it’s a little sloppy here and there, and it is anchored by two terrific performers in great roles who make us care about this imperfect movie that slipped through the cracks.  In the end, The Best of Times succeeds because it is fueled by warmth and a premise we can all identify with—after all, who wouldn’t like a shot to make up for at least one grievous error from the past—and even if it is a bit rough around the edges, it remains a lovable winner with a lot of heart.   

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