Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 02, 2002
Comeback Attempts

Robert Duvall and Woody Allen make a double feature of late bloomers.

By Kristian Lin

When young moviegoers are flocking to Spider-Man this weekend, folks with a few more years on the clock may want to consider two other films. Both depict men in their later years making a charge at professional success, but they’re as different as, well, Woody Allen and Robert Duvall.

A Shot at Glory is the second soccer movie we’ve seen this spring, following Mean Machine. It’s set in the small, football-mad Scottish coastal village of Kilnockie, where Gordon McLeod (Robert Duvall) coaches the local team. The country’s soccer championship, the Scottish Cup, is organized as a gigantic open tournament that gives even tiny, underfunded teams a chance to win it all. Unfortunately, Kilnockie hasn’t advanced as far as the semifinals in more than a century. Over McLeod’s objections, the team signs Jackie McQuillan (Ally McCoist), a striker whose breathtaking goal-scoring talents have made him a national superstar but whose self-destructive antics on and off the field have exiled him to the backwater town. Complicating matters, Jackie is married to McLeod’s estranged daughter, Katie (Kirsty Mitchell). Oh, and Kilnockie’s American owner (Michael Keaton — where has he been all these years?) is threatening to move the team to more profitable pastures in Ireland if things don’t improve.

Director Michael Corrente is a Yank himself, and he gets surprisingly little drama out of the games. Confronted with a sport where 1-0 final scores are common, he shows only the big plays, displaying no feel for the ebb and flow of matches or the subtleties of creating scoring chances. Corrente (Federal Hill, American Buffalo) does have a feel for working-class milieu, and he doesn’t prettify the town. The drama off the field is strictly conventional: Katie is given too many speeches about how her father and her husband need to get their acts together. The film does spring one big surprise right at the end that violates a cardinal rule of sports movies to very good effect.

A real-life Scottish soccer star with a definite resemblance to Russell Crowe, McCoist inherited the role after the real Russell Crowe turned it down. For an untrained actor, he does fairly well playing a guy trying to unlearn how to be a diva, and he’s electrifying to watch in the soccer sequences. (The director, to his credit, knows this and shows us lots of footage of McCoist working his magic around the other team’s net.) It’s Duvall, though, who holds this film together. You won’t mistake him for a native Scot, even though he has the accent down pretty well — his presence is too much his own. Even though the script spells out his personal difficulties too explicitly, he still gives a detailed performance as a man who needs to let go of his disappointments.

A better twilight-years act comes from Woody Allen. In Hollywood Ending, he plays Val Waxman, formerly heralded as one of America’s greatest movie directors but now struggling to get work because of box-office failures and a perfectionist streak that makes him difficult to work with. His Hollywood executive ex-wife (Téa Leoni) gives him a chance to re-establish his name, convincing her studio to take a chance on him and let him direct a prestigious Oscar-contending period drama that he’s perfectly suited for. However, a few days before shooting starts, Val goes blind from the psychological stress.

What follows is a series of Mr. Magoo-like gags where Val, fearful that his temporary disability will deal a death-blow to his faltering reputation, tries to direct the film without letting on about his condition. Allen often lets his scenes go on too long while he searches for the right joke or pratfall — he protests to his agent (Mark Rydell) several different times that he can’t direct a movie blind before the agent finally comes up with the punch line, “Have you seen some of the pictures they make in Hollywood?” As the star, Allen amps up his nervous mannerisms considerably, which is certainly appropriate to the story but proves somewhat taxing, as Val’s blindness lasts through most of the film.

Still, this comedy is inventive enough to be a nice little throwaway. Compared to other movies in the current stage of Allen’s career, Hollywood Ending doesn’t have the structural flaws of Small Time Crooks or the rickety contrivances of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. He still knows how to film a visual gag, and he can still pen a terrific one-liner. (“I would kill for this job. The problem is, the people I want to kill are offering me the job.”) The underlying cause of Val’s blindness is dealt with late in the film, so it doesn’t weigh down the comedy. Val’s movie lurches inexorably toward disaster, but the plot pays off with an outrageous concluding joke that’ll likely displease Allen’s French fans. God only knows if Woody will ever return to his late-1970s or mid-1990s form, but power to him for making a movie like this while he’s marking time.

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