Life lessons don’t go down easily for everyone, and when they don’t, they’re best taken with enteric coatings of varying schmaltz. For American Underdog, the latest movie from brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, there’s a two-ingredient combination of football and faith wrapped around the story of Kurt Warner, arguably the best undrafted NFL player of all time. For the Erwins’ target audience, likely comprising folks as devoted to Sunday church as Sunday football, appeals to the almighty and passing touchdowns are enough. For everyone at the periphery of that demographic, a little extra sugar helps.
Warner is played by Zachary Levi, the perfect candidate for a contemporary version of Saturday Night Live’s “Jew, Not a Jew” sketch. Anna Paquin stars alongside him as Warner’s wife, Brenda, a former marine given hardship discharge to care for her son, Zack (Hayden Zaller), when her ex-husband nearly killed the boy by dropping him on his head and neglecting to tell the doctors. Levi, tempering his typical impishness by channeling his own embrace of God, and Paquin, putting up her toughest face as a front obscuring honest depth of heart, make a sweet pair. Miraculously—because this is, after all, a movie about miracles—they keep “sweet” from becoming “saccharine,” much less “preachy.”
That’s an accomplishment worth pointing out. American Underdog isn’t a Faith Movie per se, those disposable Christian productions that comes along every so often, usually during lulls on the movie calendar, to tell it on the mountain for audiences that don’t need the encouragement; it’s Faith Movie-adjacent, and can’t help being interested in faith by virtue of Warner’s evangelical background. Weirdly, it isn’t much of a football movie, either, not until the last half hour when Warner—spoilers for those who don’t know football or can’t be bothered reading a logline—signs with the St. Louis Rams and finally realizes his NFL dreams. Instead, American Underdog is about a guy just trying to do what he’s good at for a living while trying to be a good family man. (And a good man, period.)
Don’t mistake any of this to mean that American Underdog is a good movie. It’s perfectly fine, an innocuous and ideologically hushed production that’s timed shrewdly for Christianity’s biggest annual hoedown. At the same time, the Erwins have managed to make a movie using pieces of Christian cinema and football hagiography that’s better than it ought to be. If this damns American Underdog with faint praise, so be it. Not everything has to be great. Not everything gets to be great, either, including biopics about figures like Warner. It’s easy to walk away from the movie wondering what a straightforward rom-com built around Levi, Paquin and an original script would look like given how well they complement one another. American Underdog just isn’t that movie, and that’s okay.
To the Erwins’ credit, they make an effort at taking their movie somewhere interesting and, at least for a Jesus-y football picture, new. Putting all your stock in the hands of an invisible all-seeing guardian who lives in the clouds, and takes desperate prayers under consideration only if He’s feeling generous, isn’t how a person makes a living in the U.S., particularly the Midwest. We like Kurt. Liking Kurt comes easily. Levi’s a charmer with a congenial streak longer than a regulation football field. Watching him get hurt over and over again as he clings to hope is pitiable, and as his hope inflicts economic consequences on Brenda and her kids, those charms falter. There’s a reason Kurt takes a job at a Hy-Vee and humbles himself playing in the Arena Football League: He needs to provide for his family. Thrilling as it is to watch monumental sports games reenacted on screen, the substance of Warner’s failures feel more significant than his victories.
In the film’s opening sequence, Levi monologues about the statistical likelihood that anyone who tries out for the NFL will actually get in, to say nothing of either staying in or finding success. Football isn’t a place for faith. It’s a math class. But American Underdog is a football film when it matters most, so all that cold hard truth about who makes it going pro and who doesn’t flies out the window, and the math is smushed by rah-rah God cheesiness. It’s not like the Erwins are betraying themselves by taking American Underdog in this direction; they’re meeting expectations of the movie’s make and model. But there’s a more valuable narrative in here about what dreams are worth when they take years to come true. The “aw shucks” hokum and honey-glazed ham baked right into the story’s DNA take that motif down a bit, well before the ending erases it, but hey: What a marvel that it’s there at all.
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Writer: Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn
Starring: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly, Ser’Darius Blain, Cindy Hogan, Bruce McGill
Release Date: December 25, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.