Every movie is engineered to reach a specific audience, and most of them can’t help but give away that intention. It can be as obvious as the pandering inclusion of this or that extraneous character or Big Supporting Character moment in your typical fangirl/fanboy friendly comic book or “Star Wars” movie, or Denzel making sure he lets his leading lady sing along to her favorite R&B song on the car radio, or that he gives her lingering, tracking close-ups in her PJs, celebrating “Real Black Women have curves” in “A Journal for Jordan.”
I was really struck by the “fan service” the Alabama siblings the Erwin Brothers layered into the faith-based adaptation of The Kurt Warner Story, “American Underdog.”
It’s unusual because Hollywood doesn’t tend to put much effort into this audience — rural, white, identifying as Christian — largely because it skews mostly older. And it’s very hard to get anybody over 40 or 50 into a theater, with or without a pandemic. It’s natural that as filmgoers marry, start families and fret about where their entertainment dollars are best spent that they don’t go out to the movies often, if ever. If Hollywood theatrical studios ignore this audience, it’s because they’re staying home watching cable or streaming Netflix.
We talk and joke a lot about “virtue” signaling — people who add every pronoun they’re not offended by to their facebook/Twitter profiles, who go out of their way to look, act and be “woke.” But there’s a flipside to it lathered all over this faith-based “conservative signaling” formula sports drama.
The first recognizable voice we hear on the soundtrack is Ronald Reagan’s, doing a little politicking by performing the coin toss for Super Bowl XIX. It’s a little jarring and pointless, but if the audience you’re counting on worships the guy as a fifth face for Mount Rushmore, it makes perfect sense.
There are lifted pick-ups and honky-tonks and country music in this mostly-Red State Iowa story. The Black teammate characters — Ser’Darius Blain has the principal supporting role — are portrayed as nice folks, decidedly in the minority, here to endorse, authenticate and back up Kurt (Zachary Levi), drive lifted pick-ups, listen t country music and teach our hero to line dance.
Warner’s future wife (Anna Paquin) can be summed up thusly — ex-Marine, divorced, single mom who likes country music, line dancing, Christian but “living in sin,” tries not to dwell on the mistakes/carelessness that blinded her kid among other misfortunes. And she sports a seriously out of step hair style.
All I remember about Warner’s playing days were how “gunslinger” fun the games were to watch, and the way sports talk radio and the nascent Internet sports chat rooms cruelly picked on the quarterback who wasn’t married to the prom queen. Ugly stuff about her hair and the like.
In the movie, Brenda Warner’s character, modesty and kindness exempts her from political recruitment to run for office. But she’s a walking advert for rural white American conservative “virtue” triggers — hard-working, tested by life, resilient, a real person reduceable here to a “type.”
The “faith” part of this story — Warner was somewhat less outspoken and demonstrative about his faith on the field than Tim Tebow, but not by much — is a soft-sell.
It’s the romance, the hard-knocks “reach for the American dream” struggle — some of the rough edges rubbed off, others mythologized — that is played up and should appeal to just about anyone, but particularly to rural white Christian conservatives and older football fans.
Will they show up to see it?