The Best of Times (1986)

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Written by Ron Shelton

The “Glory Days” are often talked about by washed up middle-aged men who peaked in high school. They hearken back to a time when everything was good, when they were the center of attention, the star of the show, when money didn’t matter and life was good. Growing up can be difficult, and shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood can be burdensome. But in reality, there are many joys that come along with adulthood too, just as there can be many scars when thinking back on the glory days, the days in high school. Everybody’s experience is different, and each man’s life goes along a different arc. But one thing is for certain, thinking the “best of times” was when playing a game at eighteen years old and impressing the cheerleaders is either misguided or sad. There is much more to life than a game, even if impressionable young men might play the game every fall, making a lasting impact on their lifelong self-esteem.

Jack Dundee (Robin Williams) is now a manager at a bank, a job he received from his father-in-law (Donald Moffat). Regardless, he holds a successful, steady job, and yet is reminded of the failure of his high school football days on a daily basis. Against their bitter rival, Bakersfield, Taft has never won a game. But they had a chance while Jack was in school, but he dropped a wide open pass from star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) that otherwise would have won the game. That drop has haunted him his whole life. Despite the successful job, beautiful wife, Jack determines to re-stage the game today, in hopes of finding redemption and a new lease on life. He must first convince Reno, who tore up his knee on that same fateful play, as well as the rest of the town, to back his insane idea to get back at Bakersfield for the decades of defeat at their hands.

Robin Williams and Kurt Russell just feel like a complete mismatch, and perhaps that is the intent. Williams, who himself is not un-athletic I would suppose, still somehow feels out of place in the world of competitive football. From a pure football perspective, this movie is quite silly. Not only does Williams feel out of place (while Russell on the other hand seems ready-made to play the stud high school quarterback who is now a garage mechanic), but his brand of comedy does not mesh well with the rest of the cast and the story being told. There is a mismatch.

Ron Shelton, who it is hard to believe went on to pen the classic sports comedy Bull Durham just a few years later, wrote this film and seems to miss the point of it all. The scenario is quite off the wall and unbelievable, while also not allowing for any real stalwart comedic scenes. There is no balance between the comedy and the drama, as there is heft here as the mistake weighs upon Jack all his life, and his spirit for redemption. But I think the films greatest mistake comes from not giving Robin Williams anyone else to bounce off of for his comedy. He is the lone funny man and Kurt Russell feels like a brick when juxtaposed against Williams’ antics, as muted as they may be here. Shelton just throws anything he can against the wall to see if any of it will stick. Most of it doesn’t.

And yet, there is some charm to be had in this story of redemption. We all had that hated rival in high school, whether we cared at all about sports or not. For me, this story was rather close to home, even if I never myself played football. Our rival was a bigger school, and therefore almost always beat us. They were a powerhouse in the area, so any time we sniffed victory was impressive. My senior year, we were in the game late, until our quarterback fumbled a snap and that was that. Sports lovers all seek glory through the game they love. It’s a macho thing that doesn’t make any sense, but Jack’s desire to redeem himself is not off track. But ultimately the film is too silly, and yet not funny enough. It’s too serious and yet can’t be taken seriously. It’s tone is way off and as a result is a rather lackluster and completely forgettable affair.

★★ – Poor

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