Writer-director Don Handfield fails to score with “Touchback,” a lightweight and overlong feel-good drama that plays like a mashup of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Friday Night Lights.” Indeed, this handsomely produced but ponderously uplifting trifle should be flagged for excessive schmaltz and offensive illogic. Some viewers, particularly football fans, may be intrigued by the plot, which pivots on the miraculous second chance given to a former high-school quarterback 20 years after a knee injury shattered his dreams of gridiron glory. Even so, the pic isn’t likely to fill many theatrical stadiums before it’s sidelined to homevid.
Top-billed Brian Presley plays Scott Murphy, a small-town farmer struggling to support his wife, Macy (Melanie Lynskey) and their two young daughters. Back in 1991, he was poised to leave the tiny community of Coldwater, Ohio, with dreams of achieving fame as a collegiate and NFL quarterback, until he sustained a career-ending injury during the final seconds of a high-school championship game.
Two decades and several more crushing disappointments later, Scott is driven to despair by the possibility of losing his farm to bank foreclosure. But when he attempts suicide, he awakens to find he has become … well, judging from his appearance, the world’s oldest high-school student.
Scott has been inexplicably blasted back to the past — not unlike the protagonists of “Mr. Destiny,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” and countless other time-tripping fantasies — and afforded the opportunity to relive the week leading up to the fateful high-school championship game.
Naturally, he doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of a not-so-instant replay. But even as he contemplates drastic action to alter his destiny, he finds himself gravitating away from his va-va-voom high-school flame (Sarah Wright) and toward the less sexy but more appealing Macy.
Unfortunately, the 1991 version of Macy is a semi-nerdy band member who doesn’t care much for macho jocks like Scott. Even more unfortunately, in the world according to “Touchback,” changing your destiny for the better in one area means, for reasons never fully explained or plausibly dramatized, you can’t hold on to anything (or anyone) you treasured in the life you were supposed to live.
“Touchback” is not, strictly speaking, a faith-based pic; none of the characters ever refers to God, faith or the possibility of divine intervention. But there’s an oppressively preachy quality to the many scenes in which Scott is criticized for his failure to enjoy the simple joys of small-town life. The football coach played by Kurt Russell (who gives the pic much more than it ever gives him) bluntly says at one point, “This little town really is special,” for the benefit of anyone who misses the dozen or so other homilies in the dialogue.
In short, “Touchback” is yet another example of cinema as inspirational comfort food, part of a vast subgenre of pics that encourage auds to be happy with their lives, disappointments and all. The only significantly distinguishing aspect of this particular scenario is that it teases us with the possibility that Scott will deliberately choose to place himself in harm’s way so he won’t risk losing someone who probably could have been wooed and won some other way.
The final scenes crib shamelessly from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which only serves to enhance the pic’s overall sense of been-there-seen-that predictability. In fact, the affecting sincerity of Christine Lahti’s performance as Scott’s mother is the only thing in the film that could be described as in any way unexpected, though even she gets to dispense some of the platitudes that make up the largest portion of the pic’s playbook.