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League of Ordinary Gentlemen, A

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/20/04 14:36:32

"Ishmael…Welcome To My Church"
5 stars (Awesome)

Bowl-ER? You mean that’s actually something you do regularly? You should see some of the looks you get when one announces themselves as such. Expressions range from vague curiosity to eye-rolling indifference, at least until they can go around the corner to laugh at you. C’mon people, it’s not like we’re dealing with professional curling. This is bowling. It’s an American tradition, pastime and good for birthday parties under 12. I’ve been a Bowl-ER since the age of 10, so it came with wide-eyed affection that a documentary about it was at the top of my list to see at the SXSW festival this year. And if the audience was any indication, we’d all be glad to double feature it with Kingpin any night of the week.

Would it surprise you that televised bowling events draw higher ratings than NHL Hockey? It’s true, yet advertisers only pay $4,000 for a 30-second commercial spot as opposed to $15,000 for Hockey. Why? Perception. Hockey sounds like a bigger sport so it brings in the dollars. Odd when it’s easier to see a 16-lb. ball than a 3-inch puck. Hell, for four years one of the most entertaining shows on television, Ed, set most of its action within a bowling alley. Yet even that was cancelled.

Nevertheless, ABC pulled the plug on PBA broadcasting after some 40 years in 1997. In one case of something good coming from Microsoft, a trio of retired executives purchased the league. With salvation comes corporate savvy though as they install Steve Miller, formerly of Nike’s global marketing division, as CEO. Like a plot out of some lowball sports flick, Miller is determined to get the ratings up. This includes getting the bowlers together in regular meetings and laying out his plan a la Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Miller’s personal savior on the tour is Pete Weber, son of legendary bowler Dick Weber, who has created a persona for himself so outrageous it would make Bill Murray’s Ernie McCracken the rooting interest in a bowl-off. The cameras also follow Walter Ray Williams Jr., the yin to Weber’s crotch-hitting yang, who while quietly having his place amongst the PBA’s elite (with a modest attitude we’d like to see in all our athletes) is also a champion horseshoe player. Pick your poison now.

There’s also the young Chris Barnes, a family man with newborn twins forced like everyone else to leave his home for stretches and hit the road to earn the bacon. Finally, there’s a rooting interest in 46-year old Wayne Webb. Divorced three times (once to a female bowler he swore he’d married after seeing her in a magazine), Webb has earned over $1.3 million in his career, but thanks to several vices including gambling he now has to work in pro shops and with his own karaoke business.

A modicum of thanks is perhaps due to the Farrelly Bros. for bringing out both the humor and the drama of a sport, that some would even argue isn’t even deserving of that title. Director Chris Browne, Producers Alex Browne and Bill Bryan and editor Kurt Engfehr have taken it a step further by not only finding the oft-humorous center of the PBA world without the need for rubber hands or 15-frame Amish bowling, but in putting to rest many of the stigmas that come along with watching these professionals at work.

Keeping us hooked into the behind-the-scenes puppet-masters trying to hype up the TV coverage, we’re also watching these four guys heading towards the big game. In this case the 2003 PBA world championship worth $120,000 to the winner. Some luck, no doubt, was involved in the filmmakers getting the dream match-up that the audience wants to see, but even they probably couldn’t comprehend exactly how brilliantly exciting that final game would be.

It’s almost impossible to write a film about a sport/game/activity that I love so much without resorting to easy quips like “the filmmakers bowl a 300” or “not a single pocket hit gets tapped by wrapping the 1 around the 10.” Told you, 18 years. Even I must cop though to not immediately choosing an afternoon bowling telecast over a Cubs game. But the timing of this festival premiere couldn’t be more perfect as it coincides just a week later with the 2004 championship where three of the film’s bowlers are in contention for the title. The Tivo is already set.

Like any great narrative, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen has its heroes and villains and a journey through a territory that is alien to most of its viewers. It’s wonderful to sit down and learn the history of mockery, only for the sport itself to triumph like Rocky Balboa despite taking more than a few punches. Great characters, big laughs and a helluva climax all combine to make this one of the most entertaining sports documentaries ever made. It’s not exactly a family documentary about a perceived family activity. But we’re big boys and girls and we can all be big enough to admit that throwing a ball at ten pins is as much fun to do or watch than just about any “sport” out there. If spelling bees and scrabble competitions can grab your attention in this form, then why shouldn’t bowling.

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