When it comes to the all-time greatest walk-on (i.e. non-scholarship) college football player, Arkansas offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth easily bests Notre Dame’s more famous Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. In terms of their biopics, however, “Greater” — an account of Burlsworth’s inspiring rise and tragic demise — pales in comparison to the latter’s beloved “Rudy.” An insistent, clunky sermon about triumph through faith, David Hunt’s film is so determined to turn its subject into a Christ-like saint that it loses any sense of him as an actual flesh-and-blood man, the result being a third-string sports saga only apt to play to its devout target audience.
Burlsworth was a heavyset Arkansas kid who, without any prior commitment from the nationally ranked team, fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an Arkansas Razorbacks member in 1994 — a feat that was then surpassed when he became an all-American offensive lineman during his senior year, and shortly thereafter a third-round selection in the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts. His is a stirring story of an underdog prevailing against incredible odds, which is why his 1999 death in an automotive accident at the age of 22 was all the more shattering.
Given Burlsworth’s piousness, Hunt and co-writer David Reindl use his untimely passing as a means of addressing a core spiritual conundrum: If God exists, how can He allow decent “Pilgrim’s Progress”-reading people like Burlsworth to perish so young? They tackle that query via Burlsworth’s much-older brother Marty (Neal McDonough), who, on the cusp of his sibling’s funeral, struggles to understand why awful things happen to the innocent and righteous. As with the religious comments strewn throughout “Greater,” this framing device is handled with maximum exposition and minimal grace. Its ham-fistedness is compounded by Marty’s prolonged conversation with a wood-whittling stranger (Nick Searcy) whose declarations about the universe’s “pitiless indifference” and the “howling abyss” that awaits those after death speaks to his oh-so-obvious Satanic nature.
Burlsworth’s straight-and-narrow course to gridiron glory is recounted in flashbacks that unfailingly cast him as a flawless servant of the Lord, an indefatigable and selfless worker, and an aw-shucks good guy. As embodied by newcomer Chris Severio, Burlsworth is a friendly giant with enormous black-rimmed glasses (think Drew Carrey by way of Clark Kent) who ignores insults and never gets discouraged, to the point that even his drunken lout of a father (Michael Parks) can’t shake his confidence.
Despite his heft, Severio hardly boasts game-shape physicality, and his dramatic skills are sorely lacking. More troublesome, though, is that the film denies him any measure of the self-doubt, fear, anger, or frustration that his circumstances might naturally engender. Instead, it casts his devotion to God as a virtual guarantee of his success — which is also true with regards to his mom (Leslie Easterbrook), who shrugs off going into decades of debt to support her son’s long-shot aspirations by stating, “My son knows I have faith.”
Eschewing complex human emotions in favor of hagiographic religiosity, “Greater” (which features multiple renditions of “I’ll Fly Away”) imagines Burlsworth as the Razorbacks’ eventual leader both on and off the field, flattening defensive ends in stadium contests and, afterwards, owning up to mistakes, leading teammates to the Lord in Bible study, and turning nasty enemies into prayerful BFFs. No matter which of his tale’s details are true and which have been fictionalized, Hunt’s stewardship — typified by unassuming visuals marked by occasional heavenly-light embellishment — turns these athletic proceedings into a protracted, one-note Sunday School lesson.
That the film can’t even properly elucidate that Frederic Lehne’s Mike Bender is, in fact, an assistant (versus the head) coach at Arkansas is emblematic of Hunt and Reindl’s ungainly scripting. Meanwhile, the fact that Marty ultimately rejects devilish hopelessness primarily because he just can’t stand the belligerent bullying of Searcy’s de facto Beelzebub suggests that, no matter its platitudinous proclamations to the contrary, it ultimately has no answers to the spiritual questions hovering over its real-life action like a shroud.