A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Immensely entertaining docu about, of all things, professional bowling, demands absolutely no familiarity with the game to appreciate the story of an effort by corporate investors to transform a blue-collar sport fallen on hard times into a cable-ready, advertiser-friendly media darling. Snazzy pic could break out theatrically.

With:
With: Walter Ray Williams, Pete Weber, Wayne Webb, Chris Barnes, Steve Miller.

Immensely entertaining docu about, of all things, professional bowling, demands absolutely no familiarity with the game to appreciate the story of an effort by corporate investors to transform a blue-collar sport fallen on hard times into a cable-ready, advertiser-friendly media darling. First-time helmer Chris Browne’s sense of humor captures perfectly the contradictions, absurdities and drama at the intersection of class, media, money and sports without dissing any of his player/subjects. Though snazzy pic could break out theatrically, it may be hard to get auds to shell out bucks for bowling — the very problem “Gentlemen” explores.

Clips, many from the game’s sunnier days during Chris Schenkel’s weekend Pro Bowler telecasts on ABC, trace the history of what was once the biggest participatory sport in America. Popularity plummeted in the ’90s, a decline exacerbated when ABC dropped coverage in 1997.

Yet even in its heyday, there was something vaguely risible about bowling. Tournament professionals often refused to admit what they did for a living.

Even after all the 21st century image-polishing mandated by the PBA’s new CEO, Steve Miller (hired by the former Microsoft execs who now own the org), the newly crowned World Champion can be found atop his trailer scraping ice off the roof — with retirement for other past champs offering ownership not of restaurants or bars but of traveling Karaoke stands.

Pic follows four pro bowlers, three fortysomething veterans and a relative rookie, from the beginning of the 2003 tour to the end, interviewing them in their homes with their wives and in their cars en route to matches.

While bad boy Pete Weber traces his lineage to legendary Hall of Fame bowler father Dick, Walter Ray Williams Jr. demonstrates his perfect horseshoe-pitching form (he holds six horseshoe world championships along with his 36 bowling titles). Meanwhile, 20-time bowling champ Wayne Webb now struggles to make the cut, and Chris Barnes, new father of twin boys and winner of three titles, chokes in the big games, uncertain if he can support his growing family.

Brilliantly interpolated clips from TV shows like “Married With Children” or films like the Farrelly brothers’ “Kingpin” don’t look out of place in the low-rent reality of tour stops sponsored by Odor Eaters.

The PBA’s Miller explains to the players that bowling draws a larger television audience than hockey yet generates less than half the ad revenue.

Abrasive and single-minded, Miller — an ex-Detroit Lion who made his name in global marketing at Nike — has little interest in the bowlers or the sport; his sole focus is on the visual impact the matches deliver on TV. Seeking out human interest and manufactured pizzazz, Miller promotes the flamboyant style of Pete Weber over solid but stolid athletes like Williams. Somewhat overwhelmed by the pressures inherent in their mandated makeovers, the players quickly peg Browne and his crew as confidants.

Dramatic entrances, revved-up rivalries and a big buildup to the Tournament of Champions inject unconvincing hype into the newly ESPN-televised proceedings: While Pete Weber’s signature “crotch chop” hand gesture quickly finds a following, Williams’ lame thumb’s-up looks like the unfamiliar hand signal of an insecure alien.

Yet the new window dressing eventually manages to underscore the inherent drama of the sport. The ultimate championship bowl-off is a down-to-the-10th-frame squeaker of a grudge match featuring the same rivals — Weber and Williams — as ABC’s final 1997 broadcast, and the docu participates fully in the nail-biting suspense.

Among its other delights, pic is jauntily shot, edited and scored.

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Production: A Dionysian Films production. Produced by Alex Brown, Wilhemus Bryan. Directed by Chris Browne.

Crew: Camera (color, HD and Super 16mm), Ken Seng; editors, Kurt Engfehr, David Tung; sound, Brian Fish. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 7, 2004. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Walter Ray Williams, Pete Weber, Wayne Webb, Chris Barnes, Steve Miller.

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