Kevin James’ turn as controversial football coach Sean Payton blocks its punt through shallow storytelling and its frankly loathsome protagonist.
The 2012 Bountygate scandal pushed New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton toward his son, as he spent the season he was suspended from the NFL on the sidelines of a sixth-grade football team. Briefly: “Bountygate” sprung out of a system that Payton, his assistant Head Coach, the Saints’ former defensive coordinator, and the team’s General Manager put into practice that paid players bonuses for injuring key members of opposing teams on the field. Unfortunately, this is the true story at the heart of Home Team, a trite Kevin James vehicle depicting the public suspension of Payton just two years after the Saints victory at Super Bowl XLIV. This isn’t a rise and fall story. It’s a continuous landslide, 95 minutes that reaffirm Payton as an unsupportive father, a way-too-intense football coach, and an all-around negative person to be around.
A Happy Madison production starring James, Taylor Lautner as the sixth-grade head coach, Jackie Sandler as his ex-wife, and Rob Schneider as her vegan hippie of a husband, Home Team represents the worst pages of comedy’s playbook. Puking gags and vegan jokes fumble for laughs. Moreover, the cinematic Payton is not a flattering take on the man; he’s a selfish egomaniac. Given that Payton was involved enough in the project to make a small, strange cameo, the picture is as baffling as it is sour.
In Home Team’s telling, Payton travels to Texas to see his 12-year-old son, who he hasn’t seen in years, in the wake of his suspension. He stays at a cheap local hotel run by an inept front desk employee. He ingratiates himself into the middle school team, becomes their offensive coordinator, and then their pseudo head coach, ultimately leading the kids to the championship game. There’s nothing inspirational or joyful in this accomplishment though. Payton rides his son and the team’s other best player. He benches other kids, yells at the team to sprint laps, and sidelines the other two coaches—one of whom has a severe and glossed-over drinking problem.
Indeed, Payton seems most helpful when he’s hundreds of miles away and focused on yelling at grown men instead of middle schoolers, while his ex-wife’s new beau takes the kids to get vegan ice cream (which is better tasting than writers Chris Titone and Keith Blum think it is).
Home Team raises several questions. Does Kevin James look like Sean Payton? Maybe if the audience is squinting. Does Sean Payton wear a headband every single day? Apparently, yes. Can someone who paid his players to deliberately hurt others be considered inspirational? Be considered a hero? Definitely, not.
The picture’s rare fragments of sweetness are found in the moments where the young actors fill up the screen. When singing a song to one player’s crush, the team comes together to support their friend. It’s one of the only times they look happy in the film and smiles flash across their otherwise resigned faces. These kids are playing football for all sorts of reasons, most of which aren’t related to their love of the sport. They’re more joyous when they get to lose as a team than they are winning individually under the tutelage of Payton. They’re playing to spend time with their friends, to appease their parents, to stay in shape. The championship is far, far less important to the players than it is to the movie.
James takes a serviceable stab at nuance and dramatic work, but the dire material he’s working with does him no favors. The rest of the cast doesn’t get the development or dialogue necessary for the audience to build meaningful connections with their characters, stranding them in acting purgatory. Home Team fails to choose between its comedic aspects, its dramatic aspects, or a hybrid thereof. Kevin James has done funny work before, and football can be a rich source of dramatic material. Since the picture lacks a decent pregame or halftime speech, it instead tries to draw positivity from Payton’s decisions late in the picture, as he accepts that he’s a parent coaching his kid’s football team, not the head coach of a Super Bowl-winning professional organization. This ultimately leaves it a crummier version of Will Ferrell’s Kicking & Screaming, another sports misfire that at least boasted some genuine laughs.
Directors Charles and Daniel Kinnane have made a film that evaporates from the mind even as it’s running, a paint-by-numbers family sports comedy that boasts neither the family nor the comedy. At the very least it isn’t dragged out. Charles and Kinnane zoom through games at a rapid speed, leaving the team’s wins told more than shown. With that said, Home Team ultimately succeeds more in tarnishing (unintentionally or otherwise) its protagonist’s reputation than in rehabilitating it. There is no soaring victory to be had here, no reason to break out the Explosions in the Sky tracks. Just bad jokes and baffling storytelling decisions.
Home Team is now available on Netflix.