A shotgun marriage of German Holocaust guilt, Middle Eastern immigrant drama and inspirational sports tale fails to click for “Playoff,” a multinational misfire for helmer Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “The Human Resources Manager”). This fact-based story of an Olympics-laureled Israeli basketball coach and WWII refugee’s decision to work with Germany’s low-ranked team feels uninspired and formulaic in its approach to serious issues, while demonstrating no feel for the sports angle. The fact the film is mostly in English will score some global sales, but reception is likely to be muted, passage to home formats speedy.
Max Stiller (Danny Huston, who rather inexplicably shared Montreal’s actor nod with “The Mole’s” Borys Szyc) presumably has his own reasons for accepting the post. But at home, he’s gone from being a gold medal-winning national hero to a traitor, and his wife and mother are not speaking to him.
Arriving in 1981 Frankfurt, amid considerable press curiosity, he spends off-hours poking around locations from his childhood he hasn’t seen since fleeing in the early 1940s. His family’s onetime flat is now occupied by Deniz (Amira Casar), a Turkish woman with a rebellious teen daughter (Selen Savas) trying to find the husband they’d expected to join, but who stopped communicating and vanished some months earlier. Drawn to their plight, Max offers to help, even hiring a private eye on his own dime. His frequent visits, however, get Deniz branded a whore by gossiping fellow emigres.
Meanwhile, the basketball team he’s in charge of finds his presence puzzling at best. Team captain Thomas (Max Riemelt) is particularly resentful — his father committed suicide over reasons related to the Final Solution, and he regards Max’s hiring as just another act of contrition that will allow Germans to forget the past. Practice sessions become a power struggle between the two men, with other players stuck in the middle, morale further undercut by Max insisting they all speak English. Nor does the pic rouse itself to much emotional impact during key dramatic scenes, as when Max discovers the truth about the fate of his long-lost father, or Deniz that of her missing spouse.
These various conflicts are dramatically promising enough, but “Playoff” feels slack and uncommitted on nearly every level. Beyond Huston’s somnambulant performance, the biggest letdown is the rote, unconvincing court action — the young actors hardly seem credible as Olympic-level sportsmen, Huston even less so as a world-class coach (the script basically provides him one vague line of strategic advice to repeat ad nauseum), and there’s no style or excitement to the staging of game action.
Support performances and packaging are competent but undistinguished.