Fred Willard, Clint Howard, Gary Coleman, Andrew Wilson
Kurt Hale, Paul Eagleston
|Producer/Writer/Director Kurt Hale, co-founder of specialized film distributor HaleStorm Entertainment, attempts to broaden his horizons with "Church Ball," a goofy comedy set inside the world of a church basketball league.
HaleStorm Entertainment, founded in 2001 following the release of Hale's first film "The Singles Ward," has long been recognized as a leader in Mormon cinema, however, Hale has recently stated his intention to widen his spectrum to produce family friendly films that will entertain people of all faiths.
Apparently, "Church Ball" is the first result of Hale's efforts to reach a wider audience. As if to reinforce that this is not a strictly Mormon film, Hale sprinkles the cast with mainstream Hollywood actors such as Fred Willard, Clint Howard and, oddly enough, Gary Coleman with supporting performances from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the semi-mainstream actress Amy Stewart.
The concept of placing a film inside a church basketball league is a funny idea, especially for anyone who has ever been around this unholy world where "Bless You" often gets replaced with...well, you get the idea.
Unfortunately, Hale borrows from nearly every other irreverent sports film ever made in putting together "Church Ball." The end result is a film that will constantly have you asking "Where Have I seen that before?"
Parker and Stone's much funnier "Baseketball"?
Ben Stiller's "Dodgeball"?
Heck, there's even a little "Bend It Like Beckham" here.
While the film is not, essentially, a Mormon film it's undeniable that the church in question is a Mormon church. The church leader is called Bishop (Fred Willard), and there are occasional vague Mormon references. It feels as if Hale didn't want to alienate his core audience, so he made it JUST Mormon enough to please them yet left out the strict Mormon storylines that have dominated his previous films.
The film centers on a motley crew of basketball players from Mud Lake, a church team that hasn't won the league championship in 20 years. Now, after realizing the moral decay that has gone on in church ball, it has been decided that this season will be Mud Lake's last season of church basketball. The Bishop wants to go out a champion and asks the team's leader, Dennis (Andrew Wilson, Luke and Owen's brother), to win the championship!
The team that Dennis has to work with? There's the geek (Clint Howard), the loser (Stan Ellsworth), the bad guy/potty mouth (Ross Brockley), a short guy (Gary Coleman, of course) along with a janitor, a foreign guy and well, once again you get my point.
As in all sports films with a motley crew of misfits, there has to be the perfect adversary. In this case, it's the three-time champion from Crystal Hills, headed by the dastardly Bracken Brothers (Larry Bagby and Curt Doussett).
What follows is a predictable mishmash of silliness, overcoming the odds, forced comic situations and, of course, the inevitable championship trophy (Oh, darn. I gave away the ending).
While the desire to branch out and expand the Halestorm audience is admirable, this seems like an odd way to start the process.
Hasn't it been a few years since Gary Coleman was considered a good marketing move?
Even the addition of the adorably goofy Clint Howard is almost irrelevant here as only his appearance is markedly abnormal. It's an odd team when Howard seems like one of the normal ones.
Throw into the mix an odd, lame love story between an older janitor and the church organist along with the disturbingly repetitive joke of Dennis's young daughter repeatedly baking cookies for anyone and everyone and you end up with a story that offers few laughs, almost nothing original and the same jokes over and over.
Writer/Director Kurt Hale is going to have to be even bolder if he truly expects HaleStorm to transcend its current niche' market. Throwing a few "name" actors into a popular sports setting isn't enough...the simple reality is that "Church Ball" plays like a marketing film for church. They may not use all the church words, but the intent is still obviously the same.
Moviegoing audiences are simply too smart for that, and Hale risks alienating his Mormon audience and, quite honestly, never attracting the wider audience he seems to desire. Christian Vuissa, with his film "Baptists at our Barbecue," started a marvelous trend of interweaving the HaleStorm niche' market into a wider audience. The result? A marvelously innocent, funny and occasionally insightful film that speaks to a much wider audience.
Instead of seemingly trying to avoid church talk, "Church Ball" could have easily been turned into a witty, biting and funny commentary on church leagues, social mores and interfaith differences. Instead, it's a generic film called "Church Ball" that could just as easily take place in just about any setting.
Even the film's novelty casting offered virtually no payoffs in terms of character development. While Wilson, Bagby and Willard all have their shining moments, they are frequently underwhelmed with material that simply falls flat.
If "Church Ball" is indicative of the messages that are being taught in today's churches then it's no wonder that church attendance across the denominations is declining.
The Bishop was right. "Church Ball" is definitely a sin.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic