The Game of Their Lives

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With Disney having cornered the market on inspiring fact-based PG-rated sports films, it’s strange that anyone else would even bother trying to horn in on it. It’s even stranger that it would be IFC, better known for gritty arthouse fare than for populist rah-rah treacle, making the attempt. Yet here is “The Game of Their Lives,” released theatrically by IFC — though I note that the DVD release, retitled “The Miracle Match,” is from Disney.

Though Disney has more firepower when it comes to marketing and promotion, I don’t think a wide release would have helped this particular film much. It’s a “nice” movie, the way the bland, forgettable guy you met at the church dance is “nice,” i.e., not bad enough to warn people away from it, but not good enough to recommend either.

It’s the story of the 1950 U.S. soccer team, which went to the World Cup in Brazil and did better than anyone expected. Yes, it’s a soccer movie, which means the first dialogue we hear is a conversation stressing how hugely popular the sport is everywhere else in the world, the subtext being, “Soccer is relevant! We promise! Please keep watching!” (Later, someone calls the game in question “the greatest effort put forth by any team in any sport I have ever seen.” Hyperbole much?)

Framed as a flashback story narrated (in the stentorian tones of Patrick Stewart) by a newspaper reporter who covered it, the film begins in St. Louis, Mo., apparently a breeding ground for great soccer players. News comes that soccer officials from the East Coast will be holding tryouts there for the U.S. team, and the local amateur-league players become giddy with excitement.

With no suspense whatsoever, five St. Louis players (the same ones introduced to us earlier by the narrator) make the team, joining some East Coast athletes whose style is more disciplined and refined. There is generic tension among them as they get used to each other, but the main focus is preparing for an exhibition game in New York, followed by the real thing in Brazil.

Based on a book by Geoffrey Douglas, the film was written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, the same duo behind “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” That’s a fantastic pedigree, but “The Game of Their Lives” doesn’t even begin to compare with those earlier successes. In fact, it feels like it was made by people who had seen “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” a lot and were trying to imitate it. You’d never know it was actually the same guys.

There are trifling conflicts that are easily overcome. (One player can’t go to Brazil because his mom wants him to go to embalming school! Another is supposed to be getting married! Another has a fear of flying! All problems are solved within minutes of being introduced.) There is speech after speech, accompanied by stirring music, about sportsmanship and so forth. They even manage to wedge in some patriotism, with the U.S. entering the Korean War just as the lads are heading to South America.

The problem with this by-the-numbers format is that we never feel invested in any of the characters. Their personalities are not well-defined, nor are their backstories particularly interesting. It’s like a horror movie, where it’s pointless to list the characters and the actors who play them, since they’re not relevant to the film. In this case, they’re all just nice guys playing a nice game and doing their best not to embarrass America. The movie is a sports drama with only one major sports sequence and almost no drama.

C (1 hr., 41 min.; PG, a couple hells and damns.)

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