Friday April 26, 1996
In 1994, Steve Gomer won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival for "Fly by Night," a character-driven drama about the struggles of aspiring rap artists. It was precisely the kind of honor for which directors go to film festivals, but it couldn't save the film from distribution hell, where it disappeared, virtually without a trace.
With his latest, "Sunset Park," it's nice to see Gomer getting another shot, but he should have heeded the adage about getting involved with a family business when you're not a member of the family. The film stars Rhea Perlman--as Phyllis Saroka, a Brooklyn teacher who becomes her school's boys' basketball coach--and is from Jersey Films, the production company of her husband, Danny DeVito.
And in flagrant violation of its rather predictable moral thrust--that in order to win, players have to put the team first--it feels like the work of several people at opposing ends of the court, all taking three-point shots.
Sports-oriented films force you to presuppose certain things. Such as: If the movie involves the unlikely premise of a white woman coaching black urban boys' basketball, the team is probably going to win, at least some of the time. After all, they don't often make sports movies about total losers, nor do they make sports movies about teams that have already won championships. So upon sitting down for "Sunset Park" we're already primed to watch individuals become a team, to watch the underdogs have their day. How this occurs, of course, is what separates "Hoosiers" from "Racing the Sun."
Usually, the coach is an inspiration. Phyllis is strictly a handicap. She doesn't know word one about basketball (and she's a gym teacher!) and is in it purely for the extra money--she wants to run away to St. Croix and open a restaurant. Even after her boyfriend disappears with her stereo, and she starts to learn the game, she maintains the dream--which the kids treat as a betrayal when they discover her plans to leave at the end of the season. But the more important thing in terms of the film's dramatic thrust is that Phyllis represents what's wrong with urban education, a teacher who just doesn't care. Which isn't funny at all.
So "Sunset Park" is about the education of Phyllis as much as the kids. Despite all the half-convincing camaraderie, they're a solid group that includes Shorty (a breakout performance by Fredro Starr, member of the rap group Onyx) and the aptly named Spaceman (Terrence DaShon Howard), who early in the film comes off the bench for a nail-biting bit at the foul line. It's a moment that Gomer handles well, and it makes one wonder why so little in the rest of the movie shares the same energy.
Perlman, who remains iconic in the annals of TV as Carla from "Cheers," is no dramatic actress, and Phyllis is never quite a fully formed character. Her relationship with Shorty--whose game knowledge gets her out of some early jams--veers uncomfortably close to romance, which seems unintentional, and that's part of the problem. She's also made to look extremely stupid ("He only shoots 45% from the foul line," says one player, to which she responds: "Is that bad?" Even a gym teacher knows that's less than half).
Basically, "Sunset Park," for all its noble intentions--and a fabulous soundtrack--fouls out before halftime.
Sunset Park, 1996. R, for some language and sexual references. A Jersey Films production, in association with Daniel L. Paulson Productions, of a Steve Gomer film released by TriStar. Director Steve Gomer. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Daniel L. Paulson. Screenplay Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson. Cinematographer Robbie Greenberg. Editor Arthur Coburn. Costumes Carol Ramsey. Music Miles Goodman and Kay Gee. Production design Victoria Paul. Art director Lee Mayman. Set designer Brian Kasch. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Rhea Perlman as Phyllis. Fredro Starr as Shorty. De'Aundre Bonds as Busy Bee. James Harris as Butter. Terrence DaShon Howard as Spaceman. Antwon Tanner as Drano.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times