‘American Underdog’ Film Review: Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin Score With Corny Football Fable

This faith-based biopic works by emphasizing the relationships over the gridiron action

American Underdog
Mike Kubeisy/Lionsgate

This review of “American Underdog” first published on Dec. 17.

Zachary Levi gets to act a little in the sturdy football pic “American Underdog”, a better-than-average sports drama that mainly works as a showcase for its solid ensemble cast, including Anna Paquin and Dennis Quaid.

Levi brings an unflashy credibility to his starring role as Kurt Warner, the St. Louis Rams quarterback who became one of the NFL’s biggest and/or most-publicized success stories.

Co-directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (“I Still Believe”) were smart enough to make Levi and his co-stars’ performances the thing that convinces viewers of Warner’s canned triumph-of-the-human-spirit narrative. The Erwins sometimes rely too much on tight close-ups of their actors’ faces, but they otherwise succeed where so many other feel-good hagiographers have failed simply by giving Levi and his co-stars room enough to sell their corny sports drama.

Soon after we meet Warner, he starts to woo Brenda (Paquin), a romantic prospect who’s always presented to viewers as an unlikely but sensible choice since, in her preliminary scenes, we learn that she’s a divorcée and the mother of two children (one of whom is blind); she’s also pretty charming on the dance floor and genuinely interested in Warner and his “Brian’s Song”–esque passion for football. The Erwins give Paquin and Levi time, in these early unsporty scenes, to get to know each other and even talk seriously about their relationship’s potential.

So it’s easy to believe Warner’s worth caring about when he takes an offer from folksy Arena Football League commissioner Jim Foster (Bruce McGill) to play for the Iowa Barnstormers. To Warner, the AFL may seem more like a “circus” than the NFL, but it’s one of many hurdles that he clears without many (or memorable) complaints. Here’s where giving Levi enough room to move puts “American Underdog” over the top.

As Warner, Levi goggles his eyes and shifts his weight whenever his character doesn’t have it in him to take out his frustration on anybody but himself. The actor really nails the saintlike dedication that the Erwins, along with co-writers David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn, use to prove Warner’s worth. Rather than play up Warner’s abilities as a football player — he has an arm like a Howitzer, according to one NFL rep — the makers of “American Underdog” emphasize how unlikely Warner’s success was, both on the field and at home.

In real life, Warner went unsigned for four years after graduating from Northern Iowa; the celebrity status he earned by playing QB for the Barnstormers was never necessarily a clear path to the NFL. But what makes Warner’s story in “American Underdog” so charming is its general focus on how this remarkable player persisted despite constant fears of inadequacy.

Levi’s scenes with Paquin are especially impressive, if only because Brenda feels like a genuine co-lead in his story. On balance, the Erwins and their co-writers don’t really consider Brenda’s feelings beyond a finite point, especially given how concerned she seems to be that Warner can’t be at home with her more often to help with child care. But Levi seems committed when Warner foregoes post-game drinking with his fellow Barnstormers, and his scenes with Brenda’s blind son, Zack (Hayden Zaller), are also warm enough.

More importantly, Paquin earns viewers’ sympathy for Brenda whenever her character shares her reservations with Warner about their relationship, which makes it easier to appreciate Warner’s (still ongoing) marriage to Brenda as further proof of his general drive to succeed despite the usual stacked odds. Paquin makes you believe that she worries more about their future than about external social pressures; even Kurt’s mom, Sue (Cindy Hogan, “Queen Bees”), always seems to be more worried for her son than suspicious of Brenda.

In that sense, it’s easy to see Paquin’s prominence, as well as the quality of her performance, as a sign of the filmmakers’ commitment to making “American Underdog” more about Kurt Warner, the human-scale character, than Kurt Warner, the Jesus-loving football hero. (In the movie, Warner unfailingly credits God with his many successes, as he does in real life.) The football scenes are also handled capably, despite being a little too over-cut and under-choreographed to be exceptional. Really, what makes “American Underdog” so satisfying is its unusual focus on character over personality.

Levi makes you believe that Walker earned his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the same basic reason that he apparently earned his happiness with Brenda: Because he showed up. That’s a lot easier said than done given how predictable Warner’s story often seems in “American Underdog,” especially when tough-talking Rams coach Mike Martz (Chance Kelly, “Aquarius”) first dresses down Warner and then, a few scenes later, inevitably gives Warner a swooning pep talk. As it’s presented, Martz’s praise sounds unbelievable, but Levi makes do when he, in character, simply thanks his coach and then hustles back onto the field.

There may be nothing new about “America Underdog,” but it’s still good enough, as far as non-perishable comfort food goes.

“American Underdog” opens in US theaters Dec. 25.