Kevin James rises to the occasion while Home Team is content to flirt with tired sports clichés

By: Steve Pulaski

Sean Payton stepping down as head coach of the New Orleans Saints the same week a movie about his yearlong middle school coaching tenure couldn’t be better timing. Especially when the movie itself is your average sports comedy about a ragtag high school football team featuring the usual crop of clichés with which the genre’s played for years.

In all honesty, Home Team isn’t as lousy as it could’ve been. Kevin James doesn’t completely look the part of the Super Bowl winning coach, but he nails Payton’s snark and blunt determination. The football team is your average bunch of archetypes, mirroring the Mighty Ducks in their inept scrappiness. When they’re not projectile-vomiting on the field, they too are kind of likable. This is one of the more tolerable Happy Madison/Netflix movies, which you know is still not the most enthusiastic endorsement if you’ve sat through The Ridiculous 6 and The Week Of.

Home Team recounts the true story of Sean Payton’s gap-year from the NFL after he was suspended for “bountygate.” The scandal — which involved payouts for players who caused injuries to their opponents — rocked the sports world, but didn’t bar Payton from managing his 12-year-old son’s school team. James stars as Payton, who departs New Orleans for Texas in order to rekindle his relationship with his son Connor (Tait Blum) and his now remarried ex-wife (Jackie Sandler, Adam’s wife).

Payton is instantly the big fish in a tiny pond the moment he’s spotted in the bleachers. His son’s team, the Warriors, are the worst team in the local league, and the current coaches — the hunky Troy (Taylor Lautner) and the perpetually drunk Bizone (Gary Valentine) — can’t find a way to motivate nor compose them. Conceding to the pressure, Payton becomes the team’s offensive coordinator, sketching a book of NFL plays. He slowly turns the team around en route to a winning season and championship appearance.

Valentine’s boozehound coach and Rob Schneider’s hippie-dippie stepdad character are the usual Happy Madison punching bags disguised as supporting characters. But this is James’ show, at the end of the day. A well-known football fan, James emulates the qualities of the longtime Saints coach that, along with his winning pedigree, have propelled him to NFL royalty status. He turns in a solid performance that accentuates Payton’s passion that both invigorates and later upsets a football team doing their best to stay out of their own way.

It’s a shame the movie around James isn’t up to snuff. The kids turn in mostly adequate performances, but the screenplay (by Chris Titone and Keith Blum) isn’t successful in making them anything other than a batch of stereotypes. We have the field goal kicker plagued by the yips who can’t take his eyes off the girl in the stands; a chunky center with a proclivity for one-liners; and a defensive end whose mom takes every opportunity to flirt with Payton. Schneider is less insufferable than usual, but he’s still a pretty pathetic comic relief, driven by jokes involving meditation and vegan ice cream.

The core of Home Team is Payton’s half-hearted attempt to find a way back into his son’s life through the only outlet he knows. Connor doesn’t feel like a fleshed-out character as much as an inoffensive every-boy who wants a deeper relationship with his dad above everything. His lack of development renders the third-act drama undercooked as a result. It feels like Kevin James has been trying for years to break out of typecasting by bringing more to what could ultimately be faceless, lowbrow roles. Here, he deserved a movie that tried half as hard as he does.

NOTE: Home Team is now streaming on Netflix.

Grade: D+

[embedyt] [/embedyt]