Audiences won’t show much clemency toward “Death & Texas,” an uneasy (and very unfunny) marriage of sports culture satire and death penalty polemic that was the closing night selection at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival (and was produced by longtime festival associate Stephen Israel). Repping the sophomore outing for writer-director Kevin DiNovis, whose “Surrender Dorothy” copped Slamdance’s Grand Jury Prize in 1998, this misfire will quickly be sentenced to life in video and cable obscurity.
Clearly patterned after that wonderful verisimilitude achieved in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, pic purports to tell the “true” story of former pro footballer “Barefoot” Bobby Briggs (Steve Harris), now on Texas’ death row for a murder he didn’t commit. When the wide receiver for the fictional Austin Steers is injured shortly before the championship Mega Bowl game, Briggs is furloughed to take his place. (A premise similar to Spike Lee’s 1998 “He Got Game,” in which a prisoner is temporarily freed to convince his basketball phenom son to sign with a particular college.)
Will winning the game for the Steers earn Briggs a pardon? Or will losing the game condemn him to walking the green mile? This satiric idea about celebrity status affecting legal fate lies at the heart of “Death & Texas,” and it’s such an oft-iterated sentiment (especially in the age of O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant, et al.) that it’s hard to believe there’s not more to pic. But there really isn’t, and in its final stretch, DiNovis’ talky, anti-death-penalty rhetoric bubbles so strongly to the surface that pic ceases to be recognizable as a comedy at all.
Throughout, lots of very familiar faces fill the screen, from Charles Durning (as Briggs’ attorney) to Corbin Bernsen (as Briggs’ coach) and Andy Richter (as a Texas congressman). Yet, they’re mostly wasted, particularly Durning.
Harris, the intense star of TV’s “The Practice,” provides pic with its only real bright spots, giving a game, if somewhat one-note comedic turn that tries to make something original out of the unrewarding material.
Lensed in 24-frame mini-DV, pic aptly essays the look and feel of a docu, albeit a rather conventional, TV-style one.