Review: American Underdog fumbles his religious cinema

Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.Michael Kubeisy / Lionsgate

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American Underdog

Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin

Written by David Aaron Cohen, based on the book by Michael Silver and Kurt Warner

Featuring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin and Dennis Quaid

Classification PG; 102 minutes

Opening in theaters December 25th

America loves nothing more than a good outsider story. Someone who fights against all odds to, in some seemingly unattainable way, become extremely wealthy, all because he had a dream. Even the most cynical of us fall for the trap if the story is done right, which should be an easy feat if it’s based on the success of a real person. This is why horrible films like those of 2009 The blind side can be nominated for best picture and win an Oscar for Sandra Bullock.

Unfortunately for prolific “faith-based” filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin – who almost exclusively direct Christian biopics such as I can only imagine and I still believe – American Underdog does not keep its promise to be … an outsider story.

The Erwins had a ready-made success with the real-life success story of quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL’s most successful undrafted player of all time. Warner was famous for working on the shelves of a grocery store just five years before winning the MVP title in his first Super Bowl. What an inspiring tale that comes from behind, isn’t it?

Corn American Underdog is such a rambling, boring, and deeply uninspiring movie that it’s hard for anyone to take root, or even to see Warner as a true underdog. Played by Zachary Levi (a 41 year old male and yet is by no means made to look younger to help us convince ourselves that he’s a character easily 10 years his junior) Warner is hard to buy as an outsider here. Is it because he decided to marry his single mother Brenda, played by Anna Paquin in a wig so ugly that it becomes the most compelling part of the film? Or was it because he couldn’t take no for an answer, refusing to give up on his dream?

American Underdog is breaking its promise to be an underdog.Michael Kubeisy / Lionsgate

Warner is described as so singularly focused on becoming an NFL athlete that he almost comes across as selfish and empowered. He doesn’t follow directions and listen to his coaches or really anyone in his life, but he’s a “nice guy” so audiences are supposed to perceive his stubborn attitude as resilience. Problem is, it just gets more and more squeaky. At one point in the movie, after another major setback, Kurt says to Brenda, “Why would God give me a dream that was never going to come true?” It’s a moment that I’m sure was meant to make audiences feel anything but annoyance with their right, but to me, that’s exactly what it did.

The film isn’t overtly Christian enough to attribute all of Warner’s accomplishments to the power of prayer, but audiences still don’t know why he has found success as an athlete. Becoming a professional athlete is an extremely rare event, even for the most promising of people – and almost nothing is attributed to Warner’s actual skill or physical strength. It’s just that he hasn’t given up on trying, even when he should have. We never explained how wanting something – but taking a long time to get it – makes someone an outsider.

Ultimately, American Underdog can and will find its audience, just like other Erwin Bros. productions, due to its slightly denominational messages. But if you’re looking for a real biopic with real substance, you might want to land at another cinema.

In the interest of consistency across all critical critics, The Globe has removed its star rating system in film and theater to align with the coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critics’ Choice designation throughout the cover.