August 30, 2007

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Resurrecting the Champ (PG-13)
Samuel L. Jackson is the best thing (naturally) about Resurrecting the Champ, a wobbly movie that mixes the sap of Cinderella Man with the journalistic screw-ups of Shattered Glass.

Feel-good movie of the summer!

Erik (Josh Harnett) is sort of a washout at life. His marriage to wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris) is crumbling. He’s a lackluster sports reporter at a Denver newspaper. He impresses his young son mainly by telling him lies about the famous people he claims to be close friends with. He wants to work for the paper’s Sunday magazine but the editor doesn’t think he has the kind of spark that will make people want to read several thousand of his words. And he lives under the cloud that is his name — his father was a well-known radio sportscaster who had all the verbal flare and pizzazz that Erik lacks.

Then Erik meets the Champ.

Champ (Samuel L. Jackson) is homeless and living on the Denver streets. We first meet him when drunk young idiots are picking a fight with him, trying to “beat the champ.” Erik is walking by and hears the commotion. He runs over to check on the man who tells him that he’s the Champ, a boxer known as Battlin’ Bob Satterfield. Erik doesn’t know who that is and gives the man money for food and is then on his way. Later, however, during a pitch session with the Sunday magazine editor who he desperately wants to impress, Erik pitches the story of Champ. The editor (David Paymer) has heard of Satterfield but thinks he’s dead (a response Erik hears every time he brings up Satterfield’s name). Erik, acing his direct-supervisor editor Metz (Alan Alda) out of the story, gets the magazine editor to agree to look at the story and maybe even run it. After convincing the Champ to agree to interviews and doing a bit of background research, Erik sets out to write the story that will be his “title shot,” as he tells Champ.

The story does seem to be a major victory for Erik. After it runs, Erik gets a huge response from readers and potential employers, including Showtime, which offers him a chance to try out as a sportcaster at an upcoming fight. It is his ticket to bigger and better things, to the life he’s always claimed to his son that he’s had.

Problem is, the story just might not be true.

Reporters tend to get George W. Bush-level approval ratings in those national which-professions-do-we-like opinion polls. But for all that people who work in newspapers can seem like horrible vultures, we do have some human emotions. We feel bad about stuff. We feel particularly bad (not just embarrassed but bad) when we get things wrong, be they small details or, for example, entire stories on guys claiming to be one guy even through they are really someone else. The movie makes Erik out to be sort of a lazy cheat (he cribs a line from his dad’s old broadcast to spice up a story). But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch him head down the road of screwing up so badly. I don’t know if it’s a reaction that non-newspaper people will have but it makes the entire last third of the movie hard to take for me, the same way some people just can’t stomach gore.

Push your way through that, however, and you have half an interesting sports story. Cinderella Man, for all its shmaltz, actually showed the sport; we get very little about boxing itself or about what it is to be a boxer here (with the exception of one writer-as-boxer metaphor which sounds no less hokey the first time you hear it than it does the second). We do, however, get the athlete. Jackson gives Camp a little soul and a little humanity that transcends the one-word description “bum” and allows for layers — the street savvy performer, the washed up athlete, the man with a broken family. While Hartnett’s performance is frequently limp and doesn’t ulimately endear us to his weenie-ish character, Jackson is able to make his screen time at least watchable.

And in a relatively flat movie, these moments of nuance make all the difference, turning what could have been merely mediocre into something that is, occasionally, mildly entertaining. C+

Rated PG-13 for violence and brief language. Directed by Rod Lurie and written by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett (based loosely on an Los Angeles Times Magazine article by J.R. Moehringer), Resurrecting the Champ is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Yari Film Group.