Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) aspires to become an NFL football player while struggling to make ends meet in small town Iowa. After he meets Brenda (Anna Paquin) at a local bar, they fall in love and get married. His marriage is put to the test when he has to find a way to balance his love of football and his love of his family.
Like a truly great sports drama, American Underdog isn't fundamentally about a sport or a sports player. Yes, Kurt is indeed a football player, but he's also a husband, a father, a friend, a son and, above all, a human being. Based on the true story of Kurt Warner, the screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and co-director Jon Erwin never fails to treat Kurt as a human being from the very beginning. His passion for football and for yearning fulfill his dreams of becoming an NFL player feels palpable and relatable to anyone who's ever had a dream. What makes him human, though, are his flaws as well as his strengths. For example, when he first sets his eyes on Brenda at the club, like Tony does with Maria in West Side Story, he overcomes his aversion to country music, learns how to dance from his friend, and returns to the club to dance with Brenda to a country song. He even stops her from dancing with another guy so that he could be the one to dance with her, so he does come across as a bit arrogant and rude initially. She doesn't tell him her name right away and they banter with one another. Their banter is very witty, and you can feel their chemistry together despite Brenda's reluctance to spend more time with him.
The full reason why Brenda behaves that way toward Kurt becomes clearer later on in their relationship during their intimate moments as they connect, so the screenwriters should also be commended for the effective way that they incorporate exposition into the film. Kurt shows up at her door unannounced, and her young son, Zach (Hayden Zaller), lets him in. With a less sensitive screenplay, that scene could've easily made Kurt seem like an obnoxious creep, but instead it shows that he's compassionate as he bonds with Zach after fixing his radio. He even briefly expresses remorse about showing up without an invitation, so he's not as toxic as you might think he is and he's capable of being introspective. There's a wonderfully-written scene where Brenda's mother, Jenny Jo (Morgana Shaw), sees him interacting with Zach and you can sense right away that she appreciates and recognizes his compassionate nature. Brenda soons warms up to him, too. Fortunately, Kurt and Brenda's relationship as a boyfriend and girlfriend and, eventually, as a husband and wife, feels real without being too heavy-handed or cloying. The film has a pure, unadulterated sweetness that's very rare to find in cinema these days. It's warm, wise and wonderful.
According to Francois Truffaut, a great film has just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle. American Underdog has Spectacle in the exhilarating football games, but the real Spectacle is found within its Truth or, more accurately, within its humanity. The filmmakers don't shy away from showing humanity in its wide spectrum, from the dark to the light side without dwelling too much on either side. There's just the right amount of levity and gravitas. Kurt and Brenda each have their own emotional pain to deal with which makes them all the more human, relatable and compelling. Both of them express their joy, anger, frustrations, sorrow and other human emotions that breathe life into their characters. It's also refreshing to see Brenda written as such a strong role for a woman. She's strong because she's decent and for perservering while conquering adversity. She's not afraid to express her anger either, which she has every right to do as a human being. At least the audience gets a sense of where her anger comes from. Dennis Quaid shows up as a coach who offers Kurt some valuable kernels of wisdom, but that scene doesn't feel preachy, clunky nor contrived. The same can be said when one of the characters tells Kurt a powerful aphorism about how we shouldn't be defined by our achievements, but rather by who we've become. There's a lot to unpack in that particular scene, both on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, yet the filmmakers trust the audience's intelligence, including their emotional intelligence, to decipher its meaning on their own while inspiring the audience to be introspective concurrently.
Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin give convincingly moving performances that ground American Underdog even further into humanism. They handle the emotional complexities of their roles with conviction and naturalism without over-acting, even when Kurt and Brenda bicker with one another. They're very emotionally generous and talented for seeing and treating Kurt and Brenda as human beings from start to finish. Co-directors Andrew and Jon Erwin should be commended for casting Hayden Zaller, who's legally blind, in the role of Zach. Hayden Zaller gives a breakthrough, heartwarming performance as Zach who, like Hayden himself, doesn't let his own disability stand in the way of fulfilling his dreams. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a post-credits scene about Zach. At a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, American Underdog will make you stand up and cheer. It's captivating, heartfelt and exhilarating. It's a triumph!
The Tragedy of Macbeth