Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Sometimes When You Win, You Really Lose..."

As moviegoers, we are always in search of the "perfect film." The one that makes us laugh, makes us think, and keeps us smiling from the opening credits through the final frame. But has a movie ever actually achieved this mythical status? That's debatable. Groundhog Day gave it a good run, but ultimately fell short due to the skin-crawling presence of one Andie MacDowell. A Few Good Men was also close to perfection, but it gets penalized for the awkward "Are they or are they not a couple" dilemma between Cruise and Demi. Ghostbusters II remains an all-time great, but is docked severely because of the terrifying painting of Vigo the Carpathian that kept me awake every single night from 1989-92. The search for the perfect movie is almost always a fruitless one, but there is nothing more frustrating than thinking you really have a shot, only for the dream to come crashing down in one fateful scene. Let's take a little trip down memory lane and deal with a movie, White Men Can't Jump, that was capable of flawlessness, but too often carved a path leading directly to sheer frustration.

Billy Hoyle is the definition of the tragic American figure. He was a basketball sensation until his career got derailed by an ill-fated point shaving incident courtesy of the famed "Stucci Brothers." He had a fiery, trivia-laden, Latina girlfriend on his arm, only he was too absent-minded to figure out how to keep her happy. With the right mentality and a bit of luck, ol' Billy could have had it all. And at one point during the flick, it looked like he was well on his way. He had defeated Sidney in the opening-scene shooting contest. He had a couple more successful hustles, leading his jar of cash to be almost filled to capacity. Yes, he got cleaned out by Sidney in a backstabbing reverse hustle, but even that couldn't keep Billy down. He reconciled with Sidney, they entered the 2-on-2 tourney, and won the whole thing, albeit with enough trash talking and threats of violence to make even Anthony Mason blush. Things were all good for our man Billy. He was a champion. He was on his way home to be with his ever-supportive girlfriend, who also was prepared to surprise Billy with pizza and wine. (An odd combo, but any girl who's at home awaiting your arrival with a pizza is a keeper.) And he had a check for $2,500 in his pocket. So Sidney's driving, Billy's riding shotgun, and the conversation inevitably turns to dunking. I wish they would have just stopped the movie right there. Cut, print, send to the studio. Go no further. Unfortunately, we had no such luck...and neither did Billy.

We all know what happens next. Billy repeatedly tells Sid he can "stuff it." Sidney shrugs it off and hits him with the nondescript, but goading, "Ok, fine." They locate a random "goal," on the side of the road, and before you know it, Billy is putting up his half of the five grand that he can dunk the ball successfully given three tries. One heartbreaking minute later, Billy goes "miss, miss, miss" on his three attempts and we are left sitting in the audience shaking our heads and cursing under our breath. But the question remains...what made Billy think he could jam?!?!?? Dunking a basketball is not one of those athletic achievements that changes for a person on a day-to-day basis. Either you can, or you can't. Simple as that. Like Billy, I've always been a capable hooper with range from deep and a supreme knowledge of the game. But make no mistake...I'm a 6-foot Caucasian with absolutely no illusions of ever flying above the tin and flushing it down unless they one day decide to spring-load the floorboards and shrink the ball to the size of a plum. But here's Billy, vertically and athletically challenged, putting all of his newfound bankroll on the line for a task that he had to have known full well was a virtual impossibility. If he wanted to parlay his money that badly, why not challenge Sidney to another 3-point shootout? Or go find the nearest roulette wheel and throw it all on black? It's so hard to get into his head here and figure out what in the world he thought was going to happen. If you ain't a dunker, you don't just walk onto the court one day and accidentally throw one down. It's not like hitting a half court shot. If you can't dunk, you can't dunk. Period. No amount of pride or determination is going to change that.

The ensuing scene plays out predictably. Billy returns home to Gloria, eventually comes clean that he lost all of the bread (again), and she storms out, leaving him with a couple cold slices of 'Za and an escalating fire inside the motel room. She puts all of the blame on Billy, and that is understandable. But not so fast. What about the winner of the aforementioned Dunk Bet, a Mr. Sidney Deane? I'm well aware that in the world of hustling, there are no friends, only potential marks. We learned this earlier in the movie. But this wasn't even hustling. This was simply Sidney taking advantage of an unstable buddy during a desperate period in his life. Sidney knew Billy was always looking to turn one dollar into ten, and ten into fifty, and he pounced on the opportunity. That's not what I call being a friend.

I also take exception with the famed sports movie writer/director, Ron Shelton, and his handling of this portion of the film. If he wants to make the flick all about streetball and hustling, that's fine. At that point, I'd pretty much swallow everything with a grain of salt and realize there are no morals or ethics involved. But Shelton makes it about more than that. We see a relationship developing throughout the movie between Billy and Sidney that extends away from the blacktop. Even though most of their interaction takes place with a ball and a basket, there is clearly another element at work here. When Billy needs help getting Gloria on Jeopardy, it's Sidney who assists him in making it happen. When Sidney's crib gets robbed and he's strapped for cash, he goes to Billy to help him win one more money game against The King and Duck. Believing these two guys were friends was easy for us as viewers. Their chemistry was undeniable, both on and off the court. Even with the unsavory hustle job by Sidney earlier in the movie, they settled their differences and came together for the tournament victory. So why, Mr. Shelton, did you find it necessary to pull the rug out from under us again and have Sidney fleece Billy for a second time??? I'm sittin' here 17 years after the movie came out, and I can't wrap my head around it. It's gotta be one or the other. Either they are mortal enemies and out for blood at all times, or they are loyal friends willing to lay it all on the line when the chips are down and their partner is struggling. Shelton selfishly yanks us back and forth throughout the 115 minutes when all he really had to do was pick a dynamic, stick with it, and let us jump in with both feet.

White Men Can't Jump will always be considered one of the best sports movies of all time. And that isn't really debatable. There are a million memorable lines, countless hilarious scenes, and some pretty respectable hoops action. Wesley and Woody were both perfect in their roles, as were all of the supporting pieces. Even Snipes' pesky and annoying sidekick, Kadeem Hardison, starts to grow on you after a while. But it could have been the best. It should be one of those movies you see on TV and automatically decide "That's it...I'm stickin' with it 'till the end." But it's not. Because it can be so freakin' frustrating. Because of Billy's hard-headed ways. Because of Sidney's paper-thin loyalties. And because of that damn dunking scene. Maybe one of these days, I'll get past it, and enjoy the movie for what it's worth. But I don't think so. Because everybody knows that white men can't jump. Everybody, that is, except for Billy Hoyle.

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Anonymous said...

Many frusterating parts in this movie, but I agree that the 'Billy trying to slam dunk' scene is the most difficult to watch. Maybe that basket really wasn't regulation...

Alex said...


How many happy endings are there in real life in the sporting world?Unfortunately, Billy was past his prime. Back in his day, he could probably throw it down, but reaching his 30s, his knees and back hurting, he was trying to reach deep to the athlete he once was.

We all know the feeling. Everytime you pick up a ball, bat, or glove you can't help to think about what talents you once had in life. I still think of homers I hit in high school when I play slow pitch softball, only to snap back to reality and pop out to end the game.

My point is, this movie reaches to the common man, and this is why its considered one of the greatest sports movie of all time. This isn't the feel good sports movie. This isn't your struggling team rallies around each other to win the championship as the lovable underdogs. It's a tragedy.

And the relationship between the two adds to this point. They are not friends. They have nothing in common besides the fact they can ball, and they can both use each others skill to make a buck. They had the best gimmick in town and it worked, until Snipes got greedy and wanted more money and hustled his partner. Even with his help on getting his wife on the lot for the game show, it was to return a favor, not out of friendship.

The movie is meant to be frustrating, because Billy is a dead-beat. He is an addict, but instead of a needle, its gambling. His character doesn't deserve a happy ending. One could argue he did have a happy ending because he was still alive. Most in his scenario end up dead because they can't pay out.

So in closing, enjoy the movie for what it is. A classic comedic tragedy.

BShoke said...


Having watched this movie about 100times and half of those times with you, I must point out that the winning basket in the game vs King and Duck, Billy slams it home on an alley oop pass from Sidney.

Plus, if we are going to talk about the most frustrating part of the movie, what about the hook shot on the Sudan hoop to secure Gloria a spot on Jeopardy? "You want me to punt it?" Up until that point, the movie is pretty believable. How about Sidney bets Billy to dunk instead of the hook shot and he puts it down. The half court hook shot was too much.

Much props to Gloria, the former disco queen for throwing down on Dr. Leonard Allen, English teacher from Spokane and returning champ Richard Andrews, rocket scientist from Pasadena when finally given the shot on Jeopardy.

I was about to suggest how great a video game based on WMCJ could have been, but after a quick google search, to my surprise and dismay, a WMCJ game was released on the Atari Jaguar back in the mid-90s.

This whole discussion might not even matter if 20th Century Fox ever responds to my letter asking if the whole movie is Billy's dream.

In closing, I leave you with the words of one Sidney Deane:

"The sun even shines on a dog's ass some days. Anybody can win the lottery."