Any Given Sunday (1999)

D: Oliver Stone
S: Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx

Cluttered gridiron flick from Oliver Stone which, as a portrait of professional football, is more The Last Boy Scout than North Dallas Forty . The plot concerns the end of season trials of a struggling Miami team managed by Cameron Diaz and coached by veteran Al Pacino. Particularly the film concerns the tensions which arise when a new star emerges from the ranks as third-string quarterback Jamie Foxx begins to make an impression. His individualistic, attention-getting style turns the team's losing streak around, but at what cost to the integrity of the game? Meanwhile backstage wrangling and medical ethical dilemmas abound, involving a stellar cast including Dennis Quaid, James Woods, Matthew Modine, LL Cool J, Jim Brown, Ann-Margaret, Charlton Heston (who also gets to appear in a series of clips from Ben-Hur thrown in for good measure), Aaron Eckhart, Elizabeth Berkley, and Lauren Holly. Director Oliver Stone even gets to make a recurring appearance as a boozy game commentator.

Four credited writers, five credited editors, one of the most extensive rock soundtracks in recent memory (there's almost no scene without music in two and half hours of screen time), a gaggle of producers and co-producers (including Richard Donner) and the aforementioned cast list, which reads more like a menu of options than a set of choices, all add up to an inevitable mishmash. There's lots of imagistic detail, plenty of noise, it's edited like a rock video, and it has a certain momentum which it derives from pure adrenaline. It may well appeal to younger viewers and to those who felt Natural Born Killers was a delicate and subtle work of cinematic art. But there is something amiss at the centre of a film in which so many talented actors have little chance to deliver a sustained moment of dramatic performance. Stone and his editors leap from close-up to wide shot to mid shot to both irrelevant and heavily symbolic cutaways (the Ben-Hur scene is an excruciating reminder of how the craft has changed in forty years) with little regard for thespian interpretation. The film becomes almost an abstract hyperkinetic kaleidoscope of disembodied gestures and facial expressions connected loosely to a soundtrack where voices compete with electronic thumping noises and where scenes of a footballer puking are a key to his inner torment. It is certainly visceral, and Stone makes use of this style to reinforce the sense of disorientation and hyperstimulation which does describe aspects of the game as it is (or as Stone sees it anyway). But it never lets up for an instant, and it is difficult to develop any kind of sense of the characters as anything but simplistic caricatures standing in for various aspects of the political economy of professional American football in the age of postmodern capitalism. It becomes numbing, it is always predictable, and it rises to as cliched a climax as one could have encountered, oh, say forty years ago

This is the most curious thing about the film. It is by far the most conservative movie Stone has directed to date, surpassing even the sledgehammer pulpit-thumping of Natural Born Killers. It's a soppy love poem to the great American pastime which adds few wrinkles to a long-established formula. The presence of James Woods is a sad reminder of an edgier director working on Salvador thirteen years before, where the generic codes of the newspaper movie were reworked through a singular personality (Richard Boyle) to produce a film which both challenged expectation and articulated a political point of view. Any Given Sunday seems like a hugely self-indulgent tribute to the hoary old cliches of the sports movie genre, upholding a certain type of old-fashioned American gung-hoism which remains at the heart of the action despite the visual overkill. The digs at the advance of industrial capitalism and the exploitation industry seem like a gentle poke in the ribs between friends, as the film ultimately reinforces the fascination with the game as a big, loud, masculine spectacle where aphorisms, guts, and plenty of shouting will always win out in the end. A laughable coda purports to offer some note of subversion, but it is really just a final assertion that the game has honour if the players are honourable. Slap Shot it is not.

The best characterisation in the film comes from Cameron Diaz. Her performance as the female heir to the masculine throne of team management is the only one given sufficient breathing space to develop. Perhaps because the visual charms of Ms. Diaz herself are an adequate hard sell in themselves, Stone seems to feel less need to cut away from her than he does from everyone else, and thus she holds the centre of the image whenever she's on screen. Her character enjoys a degree of conflict and nuance which does question the role of money in the modern game. Her manoeuverings dealing with politicians and the media are fascinating in themselves, raising questions about gender roles and personal motivation relevant to the subject matter. Diaz carries herself with a convincing determination which masks the generically predetermined vulnerability, but at least she comes out of it as more than just a cipher. Pacino is still strong enough a presence to register, but only in fleeting glimpses of an agonised, lined, face amid the sound and fury. His constant references to the history and heritage of the game do seem too much like the usual Stone speechifying though, and the character has no surprises for us even at the end. The others are mostly ghosts, vague shadows which drift in and out of view leaving a sense of their passing but never seeming quite real.

It is a pity that Stone has imposed his presence on the film to this extent. It may, of course make it all the more appealing to contemporary youth audiences, who probably don't much care about human beings anyway. Those who are as interested in seeing men being mangled and beaten as in understanding why they would submit to this week after week will doubtlessly enjoy the gut-punching portrayal of physical duress, and find the references to the classically gladiatorial nature of pro-footballers ennobling and affirmative. But it is all posturing, an uninsightful, superficial trip through another of Stone's postmodern mindscapes (JFK, Natural Born Killers) where stream of consciousness has replaced consciousness itself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.