For a few minutes at the very beginning, “Home Team” threatens to be more interesting than it seems. Announcing in the opening credits as based on a true story, Charles and Daniel Kinnane’s film opens with the New Orleans Saints winning the 2010 Super Bowl – an unlikely triumph for coach Sean Payton. which was marred two years later by his suspension due to the Bountygate scandal, which saw the Saints accused of paying bonuses to injure rival players. It’s a morally murky context in which to present the protagonist of a family sports comedy, and you might at first be intrigued to see how “Home Team” solves it – until it becomes abundantly clear that the answer is to ignore it almost entirely. Instead, Payton’s downfall is just the pretext for a shameless riff on the “Bad News Bears” formula, in which the coach returns home to coach his 12-year-old son’s team at the up, lessons are learned and victory turns out not to be everything.
Well, that’s to be expected. As another product of Netflix’s ongoing collaboration with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production team, “Home Team” – which shares a title but nothing else with Payton’s pre-Bountygate autobiography – aims for easy joy with minimal complexity, and as such young viewers with at least a passing interest in American football should find it perfectly serviceable. (The rest of us have to overcome an awful lot of playbooks.) With Sandler staying behind the camera on this occasion (although a number of his family members fill supporting roles), Kevin James is both the film’s most obvious brand signifier. and its most surprising asset: as a heavily fictionalized Payton, his gruff, beaten-dog energy gives this one-movie corndog its flavor.
After swiftly moving through the circumstances of Payton’s suspension from NFL practice for an entire season — and establishing his high-powered douchebag credentials via his dismissive treatment of wide-eyed PA Emily (Chloe Fineman) — the film the returns to pack his bags in the small town of Argyle, Texas, where his ex-wife Beth (Jackie Sandler) lives with his son Connor (up-and-coming Tait Blum). That Connor himself plays football is essentially the last bond the embittered child has with his long-absent father, though no NFL glory has rubbed off on his failing sixth-year team, the Liberty Christian Warriors. When Payton shows up to watch a game from the stands, a mortified Connor looks away as the rest of the town turns to watch the tarnished celebrity in their midst.
Among the admirers is dedicated but dispirited Warriors coach Troy Lambert (Taylor Lautner), desperate to call on Payton’s expertise to improve the fortunes of a ragtag team that hasn’t scored as much as a affected all season. Hoping for a chance to make amends with his son, the big man reluctantly agrees to serve as the boys’ defensive coordinator. Once his new plays and tactics start yielding better results, it isn’t long before the initially retired Payton starts beefing up on Lambert’s authority with a more mature and aggressive coaching style – repeatedly benching weaker players and executing the strongest to shreds. Against all odds, the Warriors suddenly become viable contenders for the North Texas Championship, but at what cost to the kids’ morale and team spirit?
No one who’s seen virtually any underdog sports film of the last half-century will be surprised by where “Home Team” ultimately lands on it, but even so, it’s striking how well the film blatantly cribs the final piece of “The Bad News Bears” — right down to its “everyone plays” moral. It’s a good moral, after all, and it makes for a more satisfying narrative than Payton’s actual coaching of the Warriors in a season that was marked by more wins than losses.
It just doesn’t seem particularly sincere in the context of a movie that plays mostly like a checklist of required scenes and tropes of a Sandler-backed sports comedy, from halfhearted bottom drops to comic book side shows. superfluous (Rob Schneider is notably no fun as Connor’s new-age beta-male stepdad) to at least one elaborate crude setting, where the Warriors race to victory amid a collective case of food poisoning . As for all the less expected aspects of the story, they’re quickly brushed aside in Chris Titone and Keith Blum’s hookup storyline – like when Connor point-blank questions his father about the scandal that got him suspended. “It’s complicated,” Payton shrugs, before mumbling a platitude about taking responsibility no matter what, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Perky all the way, “Home Team” shows there’s something to be said for winning, losing and even equalizing. The complication, however, is not in its playbook.