For a few minutes at the very outset, “Home Team” threatens to be more interesting than it looks. Announcing itself in the opening credits as based on a true story, Charles and Daniel Kinnane’s film opens on the New Orleans Saints’ victory in the 2010 Super Bowl — an unlikely triumph for coach Sean Payton that was tainted two years later by his suspension over the Bountygate scandal, which saw the Saints accused of paying out bonuses to injure rival players. It’s a morally murky context in which to introduce the protagonist of a family-friendly sports comedy, and you may initially be intrigued to see how “Home Team” resolves it — until it becomes quite clear that the answer is by ignoring it almost entirely. Instead, Payton’s fall from grace is merely the pretext for a shameless riff on the “Bad News Bears” formula, in which the coach returns home to train his 12-year-old son’s team instead, lessons are learned, and winning turns out not to be everything.
Well, that’s to be expected. As yet another product of Netflix’s ongoing collaboration with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production outfit, “Home Team” — which shares a title but nothing else with Payton’s autobiography, written before Bountygate — aims for easy cheer with minimal complexity, and as such, young viewers with at least a passing interest in American football should find it perfectly serviceable. (The rest of us have to surmount an awful lot of poring over playbooks.) With Sandler staying behind the camera on this occasion (though a number of his family members fill supporting roles), Kevin James is at once the film’s most obvious brand signifier and its most surprising asset: As a heavily fictionalized Payton, his surly hangdog energy gives this corndog of a movie what flavor it has.
After breezing swiftly through the circumstances of Payton’s suspension from NFL coaching for an entire season — and establishing his high-powered douchebag credentials via his dismissive treatment of wide-eyed PA Emily (Chloe Fineman) — the film sends him packing back to the small town of Argyle, Texas, where his ex-wife Beth (Jackie Sandler) lives with his estranged son Connor (the promising Tait Blum). That Connor himself plays football is essentially the last link the embittered kid has to his long-absent dad, though no NFL glory has rubbed off onto his failing sixth-grade team, the Liberty Christian Warriors. When Payton turns up to watch a game from the bleachers, a mortified Connor looks away while the rest of the town turns to gawk at the tarnished celebrity in their midst.
Among the admirers is the Warriors’ dedicated but dispirited coach Troy Lambert (Taylor Lautner), desperate to enlist Payton’s expertise to improve the fortunes of a ragtag team that hasn’t scored so much as a touchdown all season. Spying a chance to make amends with his son, the big man reluctantly agrees to serve as the boys’ defensive coordinator. Once his new plays and tactics start yielding improved results, it’s not long before the initially retiring Payton starts muscling in on Lambert’s authority with a more adult, aggressive coaching style — repeatedly benching weaker players and running the stronger ones ragged. Against all odds, the Warriors suddenly become viable contenders for the North Texas championship, but at what cost to the kids’ morale and teamsmanship?
Nobody’s who’s seen practically any underdog sports film from the last half-century will be surprised by where “Home Team” ultimately lands on this, but even so, it’s striking just how blatantly the film cribs the final play of “The Bad News Bears” — down to its “everybody plays” moral. It’s a good moral, after all, and it makes for a more satisfying narrative than Payton’s real-life coaching of the Warriors over a season that was marked by more victory than defeat.
It just doesn’t feel especially heartfelt in the context of a film that mostly plays as a checklist of scenes and tropes required from a Sandler-backed sports comedy, from half-hearted background pratfalls to extraneous comic-relief sideshows (Rob Schneider is notably unfunny as Connor’s new-agey beta-male stepdad) to at least one elaborate gross-out setpiece, where the Warriors lurch to victory amid a collective case of food poisoning. As for any less expected aspects of the story, they are swiftly waved away in Chris Titone and Keith Blum’s connect-the-dots screenplay — as when Connor point-blank asks his dad about the scandal that got him suspended. “It’s complicated,” Payton shrugs, before muttering some platitude about taking responsibility no matter what, and that’s about the end of that. Perky to the last, “Home Team” shows that there’s something to be said for winning, losing and even tying. Complication, however, is not in its playbook.
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