Saturday, January 26, 2013
BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 12: FAST BREAK
My ability to be neutral about the 1979 comedy Fast Break is questionable. It is, almost literally, about everything I like: a comedy about a basketball-obsessed New Yorker that touches on race, gender, and class, with a scene where a bunch of people in a car have to eat a pound of weed for—ultimately unfounded—fear of thrown in jail by the cops (over 20 years before Super Troopers, n.b.) and with Bernard King in a major supporting role. Just about the only things missing are a ten-minute steadicam shot of leather-clad Chinese women murdering villains with machine guns (psychoanalyze away, I won't squawk) and a wrist-slashing Manchester rock score to give my id a screenplay credit on Fast Break. As it is, it's fucking close.
Taking myself as far out of this as I can, Fast Break stars Gabe Kaplan in his feature film debut, fresh off Welcome Back Kotter, as David Greene, a diehard basketball nerd who plays pickup games at the West Fourth St. courts and dreams of becoming a coach. These dreams are answered when the president of tiny (and fictional) Cadwallader University in Nevada offers Greene the head coaching job, under extremely shady conditions. To wit: first, he will be paid per every game he wins as a coach, but only if he wins, and second, he will get a three-year contract with a very reasonable salary if he is able to get a game with national powerhouse Nevada State. To be perfectly clear, the chances of Greene's ability to pull off the second condition under normal circumstances are approximately fuck-all.
Undaunted by these conditions (and his wife leaving him), Greene takes the position as coach and begins to assemble a team to head west with. He starts with Hustler (Bernard King), his spectacularly talented pickup game buddy, named Hustler because he supports himself financially by fleecing motherfuckers at pool (said motherfuckers object to this practice, leading to Hustler's immediate need to fuck off out of New York). Next is Preacher (Michael Warren), a preacher, and talented baller, who's incurred the wrath of his mentor in quasi-Christian scamology by getting the mentor's 15 year old daughter pregnant (Preacher is but 19 himself; also, it bears remembering that the movie takes place In The 70s), and is similarly in need of a change of scenery. Greene and Hustler stumble on DC (Harold Sylvester) almost accidentally, hiding in an abandoned house uptown fucked up on drugs with warrants out on him; after some convincing, he joins up. Finally, Greene discovers a girl named Roberta James, who goes by the nickname Swish, who's enrolled at CCNY but can't play ball because she's a girl (Fast Break being set either pre-Title IX or in an alternate universe where it had yet to take hold), and has her dress in drag and answer to Bobby so she can join his team.
Greene heads west with his four-player team, and DC decides to spend the entire journey smoking up everyone in the car. Though Greene declines, this leads to some very wobbly driving and the encounter with the cops mentioned in the opening paragraph. Once they arrive in Nevada the tone shifts slightly from laid-back 70s hangout picture to a familiar sports-movie “get ready for the big game” narrative complete with the usual contrivances. It bears remembering, thought, that Fast Break comes early enough in the cycle of modern Hollywood formula that any number of the familiar aspects in it predate the things they remind one of. The revelation that DC can't even read and the brief subplot in which Greene and Swish team up to teach him so he won't get kicked off the team calls to mind a similar subplot in Blue Chips where Nick Nolte and Mary McDonnell have to tutor Shaq to pass his SATs, only Fast Break predates that picture by fifteen years.
One other later basketball movie to which Fast Break invites comparison, as its moral opposite, is Hoosiers. Hoosiers is all about Gene Hackman redeeming himself and teaching kids to play basketball The Right (White) Way and prevailing over the odds by sheer force of gosh darn goodness. Fast Break, on the other hand, does not give a fuck. Gabe Kaplan's character recruits players strictly on the basis of their ability to kick ass at basketball. The only academic wrinkle comes from one of those players not even being able to fucking read, but aside from that, he lets them blow curfew and, in Bernard King's case, hustle the locals out of thousands of dollars at pool, with no more than mild ball-busting. The white kids he rounds out the team with can't even play basketball: the fifth starter, Bull, is a would-be football player (Cadwallader doesn't have a football team) who isn't much use beyond being big enough to knock anybody else down, though he does shape into a serviceable rebounding-and-defense center by the end of the movie. On the bench are a bunch of scrubs who never play, and two utter psychos whose sole value to the team is their ability to piss opponents off enough to get thrown out of the game.
The team, in short, is everything that, at the time, casual fans found irksome about basketball: a core of flashy black stars with questionable off-the-court habits, brutish enforcers, and shit-starters (Fast Break came out at a time when on-court fistfights were an extremely common occurrence, to the dismay of “purity of the game” pearl-clutchers). And there's none of this coming back from behind bullshit: they beat the fuck out of everybody. Including—mild spoiler alert—the rah-rah big time normal kids' team.
Fast Break also has no moral qualms at all about the fact that the way Coach Greene gets the big game against Nevada State is by having Hustler take the Nevada State coach to the cleaners at the pool table and then blackmailing him into arranging the game as a means of paying his debt. And let's just be perfectly fucking clear about things right here: this is fucking awesome. There's all this bullshit focus-grouped “moral” derpery in modern Hollywood where the hero has to learn something and the audience has to be reminded that drugs/gambling/lying/screwing teenagers/bribing cops/racism/homophobia/transphobia (damn, Fast Break keeps busy) are wrong. Fast Break is just like, fuck it, if you can't keep up that's your problem.
But simply because Fast Break doesn't subscribe to modern, absolutist notions of right and wrong, it's not an immoral movie. It just prioritizes. Hustling dudes at pool? Hey, fuck it, their fault they're not as good as you are. Do dumb stuff with your dick? Okay, you're dumb, but you're redeemable. Blackmail a rich guy to secure yourself a steady living doing something you can totally do but society won't let you because inequity prevails? Go right the fuck ahead.
When it comes to larger questions, Fast Break is on the absolute right side of all but one. The big one it gets right is race. David Greene is not a complete anomaly as a white guy in the 70s who is capable of being friends with black people, but the degree to which he, repeatedly and explicitly, corrects people on mild racial dipshittery by calmly treating black people as normal human beings is progressive even by today's standards. The movie also avoids the trap of treating him like a saint for this. He has slip-ups here and there, and even fucks up really badly at a key moment in the big game. In order to stop this one player on Nevada State from eating them alive, Greene puts one of his psychos in the game with explicit orders to get the guy pissed off enough to get him ejected. It works almost immediately, and when Greene and Hustler are helping the bloodied provocateur off the court, Greene asks him, “What did you say to him?” The reply: “I called his mother a dirty nigger.” With the tone, unmistakable, conveying the key information that this is exactly what Greene told him to say. Hustler stops immediately, and makes it very clear to Greene that this is unacceptable. Greene later, ashamed, apologizes, and Hustler makes it clear that he personally forgives him, but that goddammit, man, certain shit is just not right, this end does not justify those means.
This same moral complexity comes into play, though handled less successfully, with the building romantic chemistry between DC and Swish, that starts when Swish teaches him to read in like five minutes. Now, the whole movie DC and Preacher have been taking every opportunity possible to say hideously homophobic things about Swish (whom they, if you'll recall, believe to be male). DC starts becoming attracted to Swish, deflecting it with harsh asides about “faggots” and wild seizures of gay panic played for (unfunny) physical comedy. Things eventually get to the point where he splits from the college and is on his way, by means not yet considered, back to New York. At this point Greene catches up to him and reveals the “good news” that there's “nothing wrong” with him, because Swish is a girl! Yay. This is the only thing in the movie that lands this badly, fortunately, and it's buffered by the fact that no one in the movie is especially supposed to be seen as a good person or an audience surrogate.
Fast Break's fundamentally good-natured tone allows it to get a conditional pass on that one fuck-up, too. Again, it's hard to get morally outraged at a movie where everyone's walking around not giving a flying fuck, especially when they're doing so in such charming fashion. Also, it's funny. Gabe Kaplan was a really fucking great comic leading man back in the day before he went off to be a pro poker player. But the standout performance in the movie—perhaps only to me—is Bernard King as Hustler. He looks great on the basketball court, which one expects, but his performance is one of the loosest, perfectly in the moment athlete performances ever captured on screen. Forget the athlete qualifier, Bernard King is really, really goddamn good in this movie.
He's kind of a synecdoche of Fast Break as a whole: at the end you're like “Holy shit, how is this kind-of-by-the-numbers silly, stoned basketball comedy this good?” As cinema it's nothing earthshattering . . . but it's nothing to shake a stick at either. Basketball that's plausible as basketball is a rare thing in cinema, and the game scenes are all excellent, shot in long enough takes that it's clear that actual ball is happening. The possibility exists that Fast Break requires that level of basketball geekery to properly appreciate it, but even without digging that deep, it's still a refreshingly nasty-ass 70s comedy with some good performances and moments of surprisingly incisive truth. Could it lose the homophobia? Absolutely. But overall it's not fucking bad at all. And it's on Instant til the end of the month, so you can see for yourself.