Church and God don’t come up until at least a half an hour into the sports biopic American Underdog, but the signs that this is a “faith-based entertainment” are there from the start. There’s the down-home setting, for one, as well as the strangely wholesome aura that surrounds the Iowa honky tonk where future NFL star Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) meets ex-Marine/single mom Brenda (Anna Paquin) at the beginning of the film. As it turns out, American Underdog was directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, who have made a career out of PG-rated dramas that combine chaste romance and generic uplift for a churchgoing crowd. But compared to the brothers’ debut, the “abortion survivor” revenge fantasy October Baby, American Underdog is downright palatable.
There’s nothing overtly political about this film’s core message of loyalty and perseverance—translated here as “staying in the pocket,” for those who will only accept life lessons in the form of football metaphors. That helps quite a bit. And stars Paquin and Levi are not known for their obnoxious right-wing shitposts, unlike some other Christian actors we could name. Publicly, Paquin mostly keeps quiet about her personal views, except as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. And while Levi does talk openly about his belief in God, he’s also criticized Donald Trump for using the Bible as a “prop.”
They’re also both unusually good for one of these films, bringing tender affection and open-hearted trust to the rough early years of their characters’ relationship. When the film opens, Kurt is a college football player struggling to make a name for himself in the sport. Over the course of 112 minutes, he’ll blow his chance at the pros, work as a stockboy in a grocery store, and crawl his way to the top in the ignominious realm of arena football before the NFL finally comes back around. Along the way, locker-room groupies and unpaid heating bills will test Kurt and Brenda’s relationship, although again this movie is a little too well-scrubbed for sexual infidelity to be a credible threat.
Instead, we have dogged, seemingly foolhardy determination in pursuit of a dream. American Underdog regards dreams as near-sacred things, and although an opening monologue acknowledges that Kurt’s story is improbable, the implication is still that you, the audience member, can do it too if you work (and believe) hard enough. Absent the praying bit, which is less prominent here than in other recent faith-based films, that’s not an unusual message coming from Hollywood. And if you can swallow your cynicism long enough to watch any number of kids’ movies with a “believe in yourself and you can do anything” theme, you can probably tolerate American Underdog as well.
That being said, it might be difficult to suppress a snort during, say, the scene where Kurt is shelving Wheaties and imagining his own face on the box. It’s corny stuff, and Levi has a smirking quality to him that sometimes reads as if he can’t believe he’s starring in this crap. He is credible as a clean-cut, all-American boy, however, and he and Paquin work as an onscreen couple. In fact, some of their banter is kind of cute. The supporting cast has its charms as well, particularly Ser’Darius Blain in the agreeable turn as Mike Hudnutt, Kurt’s boot-scootin’ best friend and roommate at the University Of Northern Iowa.
Another pleasant aspect of this innocuous film is its small-town mid-’90s setting, evoked by way of Tim McGraw jukebox hits and hunter green wallpaper in botanical patterns. Paquin’s wigs will be a nostalgia trip for anyone raised in the ’90s Midwest, and the passage of time is marked by the evolution in her outfits from acid-washed denim to the polyester pantsuits that hung on the racks of every Express in every mall in America circa 1998. None of this is meant to be ironic or kitschy, à la The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. It’s just taken for granted that this milieu is one that the film’s audience will find comforting.
It’s not until its final half that American Underdog really gets into the game of football, bringing in Chance Kelly and Dennis Quaid as St. Louis Rams coaches Mike Martz and Dick Vermiel. Here, themes of destiny and faith are emphasized, culminating with Warner’s first appearance at the Super Bowl in January 2000. We won’t spoil the outcome of that game, as it’s the climax of the film (and easily Googled, if you simply must know). But come on. Do you really think, given the type of movie this is, that Kurt is going to fumble?