U.S. Release Date: April 22, 2005
Distributor: IFC
Composer: William Ross
Cast: Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Patrick Stewart
Running Time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (some mild language and thematic elements)

Soccer Pic Lacks Kick
by Scott Holleran

Treating an upset as an afterthought, The Game of Their Lives hasn't any focal point. Writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh, who brought audiences to cheer for the basketball team in Hoosiers and for the football player known as Rudy, put the true sports story formula to soccer and come up short of a goal.

Framed by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist's (Patrick Stewart) recollections as the lone American reporter at the 1950 World Cup soccer competition in Rio de Janeiro, the flashback begins in the Marquette Park neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where soccer is more beloved than baseball. Among the men who gather to play for fun—they formed a league—are Gerard Butler (the title character in The Phantom of the Opera) as the goalie and the Mandylor brothers, Costas and Louis, as unrelated teammates. Wes Bentley (American Beauty) shows up later as Walter Bahr (father to pro football kickers Chris and Matt Bahr).

The city slickers scramble around in their cleats playing one of the few sports where pure agility is an asset. Each guy gets his own identity, which helps because—other than the goalie, whose position is clearly defined—it's hard to tell them apart. The script is as smooth as a ride on a wooden rollercoaster—without the excitement—exacerbated by Mr. Stewart's choppy narrative and soccer play restricted to quick cuts. Even in the arena, when it counts, Anspaugh skips depicting a scoring drive.

Granted, this is not supposed to be ESPN—or Galavision—though a basic soccer tutorial might have compensated for the absence of character development. As it is, the eye darts from ball to player and back with no clue why anyone chooses to spend his time this way. A few backslaps do not explain why an adult would postpone his wedding—as Louis Mandylor's character does—to play soccer in Rio. A movie that sells this thin episode as the preface to soccer's eminence in America (a debatable point, by the way) ought to convey at least a smidgen more exhilaration than is on display here.

Groping for a reason to care about these men and their game, Pizzo and Anspaugh, who transformed Rudy's simple goal to play for the University of Notre Dame into a triumph, throw everything on screen—religion, patriotism, combat-related fears—but dispose of each idea as quickly as they pitch it. After the guys are chosen for the World Cup team, they bid farewell in dewy railroad station departures from wives, lovers and others who are never heard from again. With Butler's goalie and Bentley's halfback as co-captains, no one is especially in charge and subplots—a fair weather coach, a controlling mother, rivalry—are bandied about like a ball in play.

With good period costumes and production design and with Jimmy Jean-Louis adding spunk as a self-confident dishwasher recruited to play offense, Anspaugh manages to pass the ball once in a while. But The Game of Their Lives, failing to demonstrate how one game—which comes and goes too quickly—made a difference in their lives, lacks life in its game.

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