Paramount // 2001 // 89 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // January 18th, 2006
Two great sporting stories...one fictional and one amazingly true!
Submitted for your approval...
A pair of twisted tales, tales not of sight or of sound, but of sports. Tales in which average, ordinary people, driven by their lust for their favorite pastimes, engage in behavior that exemplifies the extreme range of human emotion.
Or something like that.
Story One: "How Doc Waddems Finally Broke 100."
Mild-mannered orthodontist Lionel Waddems (Bob Newhart, tons of TV series with his name in the titles) stands on trial for the murder of his best friend, Howard Green (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) -- a murder which occurred during a casual round of golf. Dr. Waddems confesses to the murder on the witness stand, yet maintains that he has committed no crime: "I said I killed him. I didn't say I was guilty." When his attorney asks why he offed his golf partner, the dentist replies, "Because, for some unknown reason, no one else had." With flashbacks abounding, Dr. Waddems proceeds to tell the court why he was justified in slaying the obnoxious Green: The man's persistent nettling had prevented Waddems from realizing along a lifelong-held goal -- scoring under 100 on a round of golf.
Story Two: "The Heidi Bowl."
It's November 17, 1968, a day that will forever change the way football games -- indeed, all sporting events -- are presented on television. People across New York City (especially those with a few dollars to wager) eagerly anticipate the game between Joe Namath's New York Jets and their hated rivals, the Oakland Raiders. The game delivers all the excitement anyone could have hoped for. Then, at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the unthinkable happens. With just over a minute left to go in an incredibly tight game, the NBC television network pulls the plug on the football broadcast, and switches to the family film Heidi. Mayhem ensues.
Originally presented on the Showtime cable network, The Sports Pages appears to be an unsuccessful pilot for a proposed series after the model of The Twilight Zone. FOX/NFL sportscaster James Brown (not to be confused with the Godfather of Soul) assumes the Rod Serling interlocutor role, introducing and concluding each of the two unrelated stories. Unfortunately, the linking device doesn't work well in this sports-based venue. It also doesn't help that only one of the stories is really worth telling.
"How Doc Waddems Finally Broke 100" is a silly, perfunctory tale, poorly realized. Given that the segment is based upon a short story by writer, poet, and New Yorker cartoonist Don Marquis, one can only suppose that the failure is in the execution and not in the original material. Director Richard Benjamin strives for an offbeat comic tone in this odd little playlet, but the story is structured in confounding fashion, and the cast has differing opinions about how broadly the comedy ought to be played. Bob Newhart is in his usual fine, wry form, but Kelsey Grammer chooses to imbue his persnickety golfing buddy/murder victim with far less vinegar than the role would seem to call for. The dénouement, doubtless intended to be ironically humorous, falls completely flat. Fortunately, this vignette is sufficiently short that I didn't have time to give up on the second part of the film before the first had even ended.
The second -- longer and immeasurably superior -- tale, "The Heidi Bowl," delivers what bang you'll find here for your rental buck. (Please tell me you didn't actually purchase this. Unless you picked it up in the dollar bin at Wal-Mart.) Most football fans will be familiar with the events of that fateful Sunday in the fall of '68, when a little Swiss girl jammed the switchboard at NBC just by showing up. (For the benefit of those who don't know the story, when NBC switched from the ending moments of the Jets-Raiders game to the regularly scheduled Heidi -- as standard network practice at the time dictated -- tens of thousands of callers lit up the phone lines to NBC's headquarters, crashing the local phone exchange.)
The script by Gerald Zaloom examines the effects of "the Heidi game" on the lives of a motley assortment of everyday New Yorkers, including Melinda, an NBC switchboard operator (Ellie Harvie, Miracle); her unemployed car salesman husband (Gary Basaraba, Unfaithful); his bookie (John Kapelos, the wise custodian in The Breakfast Club), whose daughter is a rabid Joe Namath groupie; a police officer (Jeremy Ratchford, Cold Case) who develops a crush on Melinda; the control room director at NBC (Eugene Levy, A Mighty Wind), and his newly hired protégé, a recently returned Vietnam veteran (Zachary Ansley, The X-Files). All of these characters -- and the amusing things that happen to them on Heidi Bowl Day -- are engagingly written and nicely played, with a single exception: the post-traumatic soldier boy who's left alone at the network controls at a critical moment. Not only does this character play alarmingly fast and loose with the historical events (no such person actually existed, as the legal disclaimer at the beginning of the DVD hastens to point out), but his presence throws into the otherwise light comedic screenplay a dark psychological element that the story neither needs nor can justify.
Watching this film, I wrestled with the peculiar juxtaposition of these two stories. They simply don't belong together. Even worse, they clash. The fantastical "Doc Waddems," which feels cribbed from an episode of Picket Fences by way of Twin Peaks, makes such an awkward precursor to the drawn-from-real-life (although certainly fictionalized) "Heidi Bowl" that it's a miracle if the viewer sticks around to see the second story. Had I been watching this on cable, I probably wouldn't have. That's a shame, because dramatic weaknesses aside, "The Heidi Bowl" manages to be interesting and fun. It deserves to stand alone as a TV movie, without being saddled with the lackluster trappings of this quasi-anthology format.
The production values of The Sports Pages are what one would expect from any decent television movie. In "The Heidi Bowl," director Benjamin and crew make a reasonable attempt to recreate the look of New York City, circa 1968. "Doc Waddems" has a timeless look, and, like its companion, is adequately filmed. The one jarring element in the "Heidi Bowl" sequence is the intercutting of videotaped interview segments featuring real-life celebrities -- including journalist George Plimpton, Cosmopolitan publisher Helen Gurley Brown, and former NYC mayor Ed Koch -- commenting on the legendary events. In addition to creating a stark, distracting visual contrast with the rest of the film, these interviews disrupt the narrative flow without adding any real value. Benjamin would have been wiser to skip these insertions and focus more on his characters.
A typical low-end catalog release, The Sports Pages comes complete with unremarkable, broadcast television-quality pictures and sound. Nothing you see or hear will either impress you or send you scrambling for the remote control. No added content is included.
In case you were wondering, Oakland won the Heidi game. Down 32-29 with 65 seconds remaining in regulation, the Raiders scored a pair of quick back-to-back touchdowns to emerge victorious, by a final score of 43-32. Namath and the Jets would later turn the tables on the Raiders in the AFL Championship game, then defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Football fanatics, especially those old enough to remember the game, may get a kick out of "The Heidi Bowl." Golf nuts might enjoy "How Doc Waddems Finally Broke 100," though I say this with less confidence. No one should spend more than the price of a rental to find out how much of this mishmash he or she will appreciate. Save this for a rainy Sunday afternoon when you have a discount coupon from your local video joint handy.
Guilty of boring viewers to tears with a pointless and dopey golf story. Guilty of adding a senseless distortion of the facts to an otherwise harmless revisiting of the most infamous game in NFL history. Guilty of wasting the talents of Bob Newhart, Kelsey Grammer, and James Brown. Three strikes. You're out.
Oops, sorry...wrong sport.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* The Greatest Game You Never Saw