A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

             Bowling is like the Rodney Dangerfield of sports: it gets no respect. That wasn’t always the
     case, however. For much of the 1960s into the 70s, it was a popular recreation, but it eventually
     became associated with blue collar workers. That image may, in part, have arisen thanks to the
     popularity of the cartoon,
“THE FLINTSTONES.” Fred Flintstone and his sidekick Barney
     Rubble were not only working class men, but also members of their company’s bowling team.

             Another reason for the popularity of the sport was the weekly Saturday telecasts of the
     Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) games on ABC from 1962 until 1997. When the network
     pulled the plug on airing the tournaments, bowling was in crisis. As it fell out of favor, lanes were closed
     and the bigger-is-better mentality had taken over. Instead of small, Mom and Pop owned bowling
     alleys, you had large scale facilities that were more suited to birthday parties than to tournaments. The
     saving grace came in the form of three former Microsoft employees who pooled their resources and
     bought the struggling franchise for $5 million in the late 1990s. Hiring a former Nike marketing guru,
     Steve Miller, the new owners were convinced that the time was ripe for the reinvigoration of bowling
     in America.

             As documented in Chris Browne new feature film,
     Miller may have been an inspired choice. While not always likable, the foul-mouthed executive appears
     to have done his homework. He lectures about how the NHL earns more per commercial minute during its
     telecasts despite drawing fewer viewers than bowling. As he explains, it’s all a matter of perception, and
     in his capacity, he is out to alter the public’s perception.

             This film may help a bit as well. Browne decides to follow a quartet of professional bowlers as
     they move to the championship rounds during the first year of Miller’s tenure. With telecasts on the
     cable network ESPN and sponsorship from unlikely sources (like Odor Eaters, a joke made in the
     Farrelly brothers’ comedy
KINGPIN that proved too obvious to ignore), the PBA set out to remake
     its image.

             The trend in nonfiction films to follow a handful of individuals in a competition is now in danger
     of becoming a cliché, though, especially as this film follows on the heels of
     MAD HOT BALLROOM. Undoubtedly when the movie was being shot, it seemed like a good idea.
     But part of the problem in zeroing in on a couple of people is that the movie makers gamble on the
     outcome. In this case, two of the four don’t exactly live up to their potential (although one, Walter
     Webb gives Browne a terrific arc as the once golden boy now fallen on hard times).

             The two men who do emerge as the top competitors prove to be a real study in contrasts:
     Pete Weber, the foul-mouthed, crass, self-proclaimed “bad boy” who happens also to be the son of
     a bowling legend, and the gentlemanly Walter Ray Williams Jr., a quiet almost dull man with true
     athletic gifts – he’s also a champion horseshoe player as well as top bowler.

             For his part, Miller clearly favors Weber, in part because his antics whip the crowds and provide
     surface appeal. At that point, I found my own allegiances shifting. There’s something in the way Browne
     shoots Miller (we first see the barrel-chested, but very muscular Miller working out at a gym and outlining
     his plans for the PBA) that invites the audience’s distain. By the time, he’s offering one of his profanity-laden
     discourses, he moves toward becoming a more unlikable figure. When he’s seen supporting Weber’s
     antics in lieu of Williams’ skill, the die is cast. Without knowing the outcome, I immediately began to hope
     that Williams would eventually prevail. (That Browne manages to eke out some viable tension from this
     situation bodes well for future projects.)

             A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN isn’t on par with some of the best nonfiction films
     of the last few years, but it is a well-intentioned and well-made first effort.

                    Rating:                        B-
                    MPAA Rating:            NONE (profanity)
                    Running time:               93 mins.

                                            Viewed at Magno Review One
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.