A League of Ordinary Gentlemen
directed by Christopher Browne
(Magnolia, 2004)

They say the sports teams of your youth are the ones that stick with you -- the Steelers' era of Lynn Swann pregubernatorial aspirations, the Phillies' era of Mike Schmidt, the wrestling era of Andre the Giant, the bowling era of Dick Weber and Earl Anthony.

I can't say I ever followed pro bowling all that much. But what I remember is that those guys seemed outstandingly ... ordinary. So the brilliantly titled A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, a documentary about the demise of the Professional Bowlers Association and efforts to revive it, is right up my alley.

Before you think you're too cool to care, let me say this: You may not care one bit about bowling. But what Christopher Browne has created will make you care a great deal about these bowlers.

League follows four former PBA champs -- no longer strutting young Turks but now all-too-ordinary middle-aged guys -- as they try to reclaim some of their youthful glory in the reconstituted, glammed-up PBA that debuted in 2000 when a trio of Microsoft guys bought the entire league for five million bucks. (That's how far bowling had fallen: An entire league for about one-fifth of Barry Bonds' salary this year.)

There's Pete Weber, son of the great Dick Weber. Walter Ray Williams, the Walter Mitty-ish hero who's also a horseshoe Hall of Famer. Wayne Webb, another bowling superstar who partied and gambled away his millions. And baby-faced Chris Barnes, who's trying to juggle family life and the tour.

They're all put under the direction of Steve Miller, Nike's former director of global sports marketing and an aggressive, bleepable drill sergeant, whose job it will be to make America -- and sponsors -- care about bowling again. In other words, he has to make the PBA shiny and new.

But not all of the old guys think it's better -- and more than one, looking at the strobe lights, the whooping crowds and the crotch-chopping of Pete Weber, stay in the game only because they hate to see something they love so much go down the tubes.

But, along with being a defiant love song for bowling, one that doesn't shy away from the big questions asked about sports deification in general, League has more on its mind. And it's that "more" that makes it fascinating.

You won't very often find a more unflinching look at a bunch of guys who realize pop culture has passed them by and much of what they love has been dumped by the wayside. It's not the stereotypical midlife crisis of "I want a sports car." You get a true sense of what a real crisis in midlife is like; there's nothing fictional about watching these bowlers wonder if they should hang up their dreams when they have absolutely nothing waiting in the wings.

"I'm broke, I have no family and I have no life -- and I need every piece of that to make me happy," says a despondent Webb.

It's a hard slog, and they're not going to get NBA or NFL wealthy doing it: Tommy Jones led all bowlers in earnings this year with $301,700 (or about what Kevin Federline, Britney Spears' husband, reportedly shelled out recently for a wristwatch).

In the world of the professional athlete, that puts bowlers squarely in the category of "ordinary" -- a label that doesn't apply, really, to them or this movie, at all. But then, the title A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has already been taken.

review by
Jen Kopf

12 January 2008

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