Hollywood filmmakers are suckers for underdog sports stories. "Sunset Park" is the latest in the genre and by no means much of a new wrinkle. The venue is the basketball court, and the participants are an inexperienced female coach and a team of not terribly motivated inner city African-American kids.

Hollywood filmmakers are suckers for underdog sports stories. “Sunset Park” is the latest in the genre and by no means much of a new wrinkle. The venue is the basketball court, and the participants are an inexperienced female coach and a team of not terribly motivated inner city African-American kids. One can readily see that the tale is, narratively, headed for a championship showdown. But, despite strong production values and a decent script, this is predictable programmer fare that will quickly be digested and spit out of theaters in the lull before this summer’s blockbuster releases.

Phyllis Saroka (Rhea Perlman) teaches at a Brooklyn high school but dreams of opening a restaurant on the island of St. Croix. Her latest boyfriend has evaporated and she’s a tad short of cash … not to mention most of the household appliances and gadgets that disappeared with the errant beau. So when there’s an opening for a basketball coach, she’s very much game.

It doesn’t much matter to anyone other than the players that she knows little more than the shape of the ball. Phyllis maintains that she brings such invaluable assets to her squad as being smart, a fast learner and someone who hates to lose. Not surprisingly, they remain skeptical about an unschooled white woman providing inspiration and the zeal to win.

The premise dictates that the plucky coach must somehow win the confidence of her players. And while her understanding of the game increases by leaps and bounds, she gains their trust by being there off the court. She advises them about girls, gets them tutors for class, visits them in the hospital and gets them representation in court.

Given such familiar turf, it’s not surprising that “Sunset Park” dribbles along, attempting to disguise the requisite cliches with fancy shots. It’s not much of a smoke screen. Basically, all that counts is getting the ball in the hoop and not the angle or degree of difficulty involved.

Director Steve Gomer is eager to play and does his best with Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and Kathleen McGhee-Anderson’s functional script. The problem with the material is that it makes its points with a sledgehammer, and they’re obvious ones. The picture believes in the American dream that everyone has the opportunity to rise to the highest station through hard work.

Once again, it’s the performers who lift the story up several pegs. The ensemble of fresh faces provides onscreen energy otherwise missing through narrative momentum. Actors James Harris, as a slightly vain young man, De’Aundre Bonds’ geeky Busy-Bee, and Terrence Dashon Howard’s aptly named Spaceman all bring a focused humanity to roles that could easily fall into caricature.

Fredro Starr is pivotal team member Shorty and has the tricky task of navigating a part dripping with sexual innuendo between himself and a vampy Perlman. The film’s most curious choice is in setting up the character as a siren, leading these boys on without stepping outside the borders of decency. It’s an edge the picture truly doesn’t need.

“Sunset Park” meanders, seemingly in search of something diverting and fresh. It travels foul and will quickly be sent to the showers by movie referees.

Sunset Park

Production

A Sony release of a TriStar presentation of a Jersey Films production in association with Daniel A. Paulson Prods. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Paulson. Executive producer, Elizabeth Cantillon. Co-producers, Mary Kane, Cara Buonincontri. Directed by Steve Gomer. Screenplay, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Robbie Greenberg; editor, Arthur Coburn; music, Miles Goodman, Kay Gee; production design, Victoria Paul; art director, Lee Mayman; costume design, Carol Ramsey; sound (Dolby), Felipo Borrero; basketball consultant, David Ian Benezra; assistant director, Gary Marcus; casting, Robi Reed-Humes, Tony Lee, Andrea Reed. Reviewed at the Cinerama Dome, L.A., April 17, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 min.

With

Phyllis Saroka - Rhea Perlman
Shorty - Fredro Starr
Mona - Carol Kane
Spaceman - Terrence Dashon
Howard Barbara - Camille Saviola
Busy-Bee - De'Aundre Bonds
Butter - James Harris
Andre - Anthony Hall
Drano - Antwon Tanner
Kurt - Shawn Michael Howard
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