American Underdog doesn’t do right by Anna Paquin. I know, I know. “A faith-based film about a football player doesn’t make space for the lead woman in the cast? Shocker!” And perhaps that’s fair. However, Underdog takes a few steps further than the typical Erwin Brothers’ fare.
Brenda (Paquin), Kurt Warner’s (Zachary Levi) eventual wife, discusses her faith with Kurt early in their relationship. She describes an encounter with an older woman who told Brenda that God had a plan for her to do great things. For specific types of Christians this would be, indeed, a powerful and moving encounter. One can certainly understand why it made such an impression on Brenda.
However, in the context of the film, the implication becomes Brenda’s “great” thing is marrying future Super Bowl MVP St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. It isn’t just that the film gives her a small role. I get that; it is Warner’s movie specifically, after all. It isn’t that they don’t give their best performer enough to do—although she is, and they don’t. It’s that they take what most be a precious aspect of her faith journey and end up implying that her true greatness is sitting in the stands. It, to speak bluntly, is a tremendous bummer.
It is also, oddly enough, one of the few explicitly faith-related setpieces of the film. It’s as though the Erwins have gotten so good at smuggling Christian messaging into fairly mainstream-looking movies, they sort of forgot to do it here. Most of the reason we know this is a faith-oriented film is the Erwin Brothers’ filmography, that Warner’s Christianity is a reasonably well-known aspect of the man, and they love a shot of sunbeams. If you somehow had no idea about any of that, you could conceivably watch this entire film being none the wiser.
To be clear, though, this doesn’t make Underdog good.
Warner is undoubtedly an excellent topic for a biopic. His story is fascinating. The only undrafted MVP in history. The only undrafted Super Bowl MVP in history. Going from a third-stringer to a 47 million dollar seven-year deal three years later at the age of 29. A very publicly faithful man who has claimed that God healed his concussion in 2000. A good parent who quickly adopted his stepchildren after he married Brenda. One of the earliest white players to express public support for those kneeling during the National Anthem. Great film fodder.
Unfortunately, Underdog takes all that interesting material and flattens it. We hear about his struggle from Levi, doing a fine enough job, but the movie rarely gives us time to feel it. If anything, Paquin gets the bigger emotional setpieces, including one concerning her parents’ tragic deaths. Kurt gets the screentime, but we get no particular insight into his struggle or journey.
The filmmaking is passable. Strangely the movie only really comes to visual life during Warner’s brief time in arena football. Shot with quick edits, closeups, loud music, smoke, and topped with a commissioner, Jim Foster (Bruce McGill), who loves flashing cash, it is easily the most fun Underdog ever feels. Actually, in retrospect, the Erwin Brothers might be suggesting a sort of Hell with the staging, which makes it more religious than I said above AND may suggest something about me that I’d rather not unpack.
However, overall, from the filmmaking to the script, Underdog has one overwhelming feeling: playing it safe. It takes no big swings—no surprise that Warner’s stand on kneeling doesn’t end up in here—and even the swings it takes, they fail to invest with pathos.
I’m all for faith-based films that tell stories rather than simply preach for 90 minutes. Give me an Underdog over a Fireproof every day of the week. Still, I know there exists a way to tell stories of faith that aren’t just sermons AND have a spark to them, a sense of life. This may mark a step in the right direction for the Erwin Brothers, but it still feels like miles to go before they sleep.