Ben Affleck once shared in an interview that he started his acting career in Afterschool Specials. This movie feels like an Afterschool Special, if you could sprinkle in a lot of F-words.
Affleck has talked a lot recently about his alcoholism, including a relapse he had while filming this. And you can’t help but think about that as you watch him play an alcoholic basketball coach.
What I instead thought of were four of my basketball coaches growing up. In 5th grade it was Steve Haupt, in 6th grade his younger brother Mike Haupt (who is now enjoying a lot of success coaching hoops at St. Augustine). My JV basketball coach at Mira Mesa High School was Gary Blevins, who had a great sense of humor and loved ribbing us. I remember one time when our school had a lip synch/air band competition during lunch, a guy on our team was part of the B-52s singing Rock Lobster. He still had the green dye in his hair as he walked into practice, with Coach Blevins yelling, “Whitey, what is that green stuff in your hair?”
When he explained that it was to look like a band member in the B-52s, Coach yelled, “My dad fought in World War II! A B-52 is a plane, not a band. Run 20 laps!”
When I made the varsity team, my coach was Tim Cunningham. He had been a star college basketball player, and later spent two decades coaching at Mira Mesa. I’ll never forget him making fun of my no-look passes, as I tried emulating my favorite player — Magic Johnson. He also took us to see the movie Hoosiers, which was playing in theatres, after we beat the top ranked team (Morse).
How could I not think of Coach Cunningham when…Affleck’s character is Coach Cunningham.
It’s just a shame that the best part of the movie was reminiscing about my playing days, as well as it reminding me of a few episodes of The White Shadow (a segment where a player’s father refuses to attend his games, reminded me of the episode where Tim Van Patten wants to box, and his dad refuses to go see him fight).
Jack Cunningham is shown working construction, and drinking; both after work and on the job, as well as on the roads, after pouring his booze into a fast food cup. He even chugs beers in the shower (which was kind of a stupid scene to show).
When a call comes for him to return to his old Catholic high school and start coaching, he seems to get his sh** together. Of course, that means the same type of scenes you saw in Hoosiers — with him getting gunners, ball hogs, and egos in check, and quickly gaining the respect of the players. Even if the team chaplin doesn’t care for his constant cursing, they’re all seeing the results of his basketball knowledge, experience, and tough love.
One of my pet peeves in basketball films is how poorly they play basketball. During the last 10 years, filmmakers have gotten better about this, and the basketball scenes in this are edited tightly and show some exciting stuff.
It was refreshing that the Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t over-the-top with Cunningham’s drinking. It was shown, and his concerned sister (Michaela Watkins) gets under his skin with her worries.
Later in the movie, we find out some of the reasons that may have led to Cunningham’s drinking. That just made me start thinking more about Affleck and his struggles in real life, and his acting brother Casey, who covered similar ground in the much, much better Manchester by the Sea.
There were enough good scenes in this to not make this movie a total disaster. One in which the chaplin has a conversation with him on the team bus was solid, as well as an assistant coach lightly bringing up the beer cans around the office.
The scenes with his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar)…not so much.
His dealing with the players — perfectly done.
And I’ve known functioning alcoholics before (my stepdad was one)…but Cunningham is drinking half a bottle of gin and 18 cans of beer to start the day…sometimes 24 cans at night, if he’s not at the bar getting sauced. Yet, he still holds two jobs and looks pretty damn good. No beer belly. No face that looks like the Nick Nolte mugshot.
Director Gavin O’Connor has worked with Affleck before (The Accountant). I liked what O’Connor did with an alcoholic and a couple of fighters in Warrior (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and the mugshot himself — Nolte).
The film also suffers from the fact that you just don’t care for Cunningham all that much. It’s nice that he starts to care about the kids, but it’s also a bit cliche. The film manipulates you (especially with the score), and that’s not the way to get tears flowing from the audience. Neither are sad backstories.
I haven’t played basketball in a few years now, but I used to play, coach, ref, and every night I seem to have some basketball related dream. So it’s nice to see a movie dealing with my favorite sport. I just wish it would’ve been a better one.
You’ll forget about this Coach Cunningham a few days after seeing this. Luckily for me, and over 20 years worth of players from Mira Mesa High, we have a real Coach Cunningham we’ll never forget.
2 stars out of 5.