Just in time for March Madness, Disney is hitting the hardwood with “The 6th Man,” a raucous yet sentimental comedy about a college basketball star who returns from the dead to help his younger brother fulfill his hoop dreams. One might question the wisdom of opening such a pic on the last weekend of the NCAA tournament. (Won’t basketball fans have something more pressing than moviegoing on their minds?) But the Touchstone release has enough across-the-board appeal to attract even those who don’t know an airball from a hairball.
“The 6th Man” is most appealing during its opening half-hour, in scenes before the supernatural elements come into play. The first act introduces Antoine Tyler (Kadeem Hardison) and his younger brother, Kenny (Marlon Wayans), as hard-driving hoopsters who first set their sights on NCAA stardom while still grade-school kids coached by their father (Harold Sylvester).
The pic finds the brothers at the U. of Washington, where Antoine is the roundball superstar, and Kenny is his talented but overshadowed sidekick.
The mood abruptly darkens when Antoine collapses during a tightly contested game and dies from a heretofore unnoticed heart problem. (Here and elsewhere, screenwriters Christopher Reed and Cynthia Carle evidence an informed grasp of college basketball lore.)
Kenny is shattered, and the other Washington Huskies, led by Coach Pederson (David Paymer), are crestfallen. The situation grows worse when Kenny tries to take over his late brother’s role as team leader, only to face media scrutiny and self-doubt.
There likely is a good movie to be made about a college athlete who must overcome his insecurities while emerging from the shadow of a more famous sibling (or parent). And that movie might also deal seriously with the trauma suffered by young people who are suddenly forced to confront their own mortality.
But that isn’t the movie director Randall Miller (“Houseguest”) chose to make. Instead, after an intriguing setup, “6th Man” turns into an entertaining but predictably zany comedy, as Antoine reappears as a brightly lit apparition to alternately inspire and annoy Kenny.
Antoine — who’s visible only to Kenny — uses his ghostly powers to help the Huskies score stunning upsets. College basketball players haven’t had so much help on the court since Fred MacMurray attached Flubber to their shoes in “The Absent Minded Professor.”
At first, Kenny and his fellow players are grateful for the otherworldly intervention. Kenny convinces his teammates that Antoine’s spirit is literally with them, but the more Antoine continues to help the Huskies, the more he behaves like an egomaniacal hot-dogger. He even takes it upon himself to discourage Kenny’s budding romance with an inquisitive woman sportswriter (Michael Michele).
“The 6th Man” relies heavily on sight gags and special-effects trickery to earn laughs. But the pic also sustains interest with clever shadings of character and unexpectedly strong performances. Director Miller gets so much out of his cast and screenplay that the audience may actually wish the pic had less humor and even more heart.
Hardison is very funny as a swaggering, trash-talking spirit. Better still, he skillfully reveals flashes of Antoine’s darker side, showing how bullying the character can be (alive or dead), and how ferociously obsessed Antoine is when it comes to winning the NCAA title.
Likewise, Wayans provides more than bug-eyed double takes and smart-mouthed bandying. He also does much to convey Kenny’s mixed feelings about his brother, and his slow but sure development of an independent streak. Together, the two actors give “The 6th Man” a bit more depth and texture than it might otherwise have had.
Also noteworthy is Paymer’s nicely nuanced portrayal of the zealous but compassionate Huskies coach. Among the well-cast college team players, Vladimir Cuk (as a towering Siberian center) and Travis Ford (as a pugnacious guard) are standouts.
As the inquisitive sportswriter, Michele has little to do but look beautiful, which she does very convincingly. Several real-life sportscasters — including Brad Vitale and Brad Nessler — make amusing cameo appearances.
Tech values, including special effects coordinated by Stewart Bradley and visual effects by Available Light Ltd., are first-rate.
A minor quibble: Even by contemporary standards of PG-13 permissiveness, “The 6th Man” seems unusually foul-mouthed. Parents of children who are attracted by Disney’s full-court press TV ad campaign might judge this a personal foul.