30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

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Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

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Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.youtube.com

The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

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Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com