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    Saturday, May 25, 2024

    ‘The Beautiful Game’ review: Film inspired by Homeless World Cup gets by on vibes

    Spirit goes a long way in “The Beautiful Game.”

    Releasing this week on Netflix, the sports comedy-drama shines a light on the Homeless World Cup, an annual event in which, yes, homeless male and female footballers — soccer players to us — play for their countries in matches of four-on-four “street” soccer, which is played on a smaller field, er, pitch.

    Made with the support of the event’s namesake organization and said to be inspired by true stories, “The Beautiful Game” focuses mainly on fellas comprising the English club and their coach, a former professional star player.

    The direction by the suddenly busy Thea Sharrock — her film “Wicked Little Letters” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and lands in theaters this week — and screenplay by Frank Cottrell-Boyce leave a lot to be desired.

    The film has the flow of a match where neither team manages more than a few scoring opportunities, but it does eke out a win.

    The ever-enjoyable Bill Nighy (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Living”) stars as the aforementioned player-turned-coach, Mal, who also spent time as a scout for a pro club. When we meet him, he is hunting for big game — former pro Vinny (Micheal Ward), who has been living out of his car for a stretch as he’s struggled to find steady work.

    Mal explains to Vinny that he’s been involved with the Homeless World Cup for years and that he’s set to take his 12th team to the tournament, which this year is in Rome.

    “You ever won it?” Vinny asks.

    “It’s not about winning,” Mal says.

    “You’re desperate to win it.”

    “Well, I wouldn’t object.”

    Mal tells him that every player at the tournament has a story to tell — “heartbreaking, unexpected, thrilling stories” — and seems to want Vinny to take part in the Homeless World Cup for reasons that go beyond the fact he clearly would be the team’s best player.

    Vinny is the prideful type and initially rebuffs Mal, but perhaps eager to impress the young daughter he visits at a playground who’s being raised by his ex, he agrees to go.

    With the possible exception of the team’s existing striker, Cal (Kit Young), the players warmly welcome Vinny into their supportive dynamic, but he chooses to keep his distance, even once they’re all in Rome and competing. He does provide some much-needed scoring punch, unabashedly installing a “pass it to me” core team strategy.

    It isn’t the fault of Ward (“Empire of Light,” “The Old Guard”) that it’s so hard to warm to Vinny, as Sharrock, whose credits also include the controversial 2016 tearjerker “Me Before You,” and Cottrell-Boyce, perhaps best known for TV writing, fly too close to the sun with his character arc. Vinny simply is too hard to like for too long.

    As a result, we wish "The Beautiful Game” gave us more time with Nighy’s Mal, who habitually talks to his beloved late wife. Still, there seems to be a little chemistry between him and Gabriella (Valeria Golino of “Rain Man” fame), who helps run the event and talks a little trash on behalf of her host Italian squad. it feels like a missed opportunity not to make more out of, um, “Mal-riella,” if we may be so bold, than the movie does.

    “The Beautiful Game” includes mini-subplots involving the English players, the closest to impactful of which involves Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), a recovering heroin addict who tries hard to connect with his cold roommate, Vinny.

    The movie also devotes some attention to two other teams: South Africa, expected to be the dominant squad in England’s group before running into travel trouble; and Japan, competing for the first time. Thanks to the performance of Susan Wokoma as the infectiously enthusiastic nun coaching the South African team, the former element adds a little something to the proceedings. (The latter adds very little.)

    Lastly, we spend a little time with Rosita (Cristina Rodlo), a hugely talented player for the U.S. who catches the eye of British player Jason (Sheyi Cole), who doesn’t make the best of first impressions. After getting past that, they spend a bit of time together, with Rosita explaining why the Homeless World Cup — and soccer in general — could mean so much to her future.

    Thinking “Ted Lasso” crossed with “Next Goal Wins” gets you in the ballpark as to what “The Beautiful Game” has to offer, although it's not as strong as either the Apple TV+ hit or the 2023 film from writer-director Taika Waititi, respectively.

    Despite all its fumbling about, “The Beautiful Game” succeeds as a celebration of the Homeless World Cup, championing not only what the experience means for those who participate in it but also its power to inspire others around the world.

    According to the film’s production notes, the event has taken place 18 times since its inaugural 2003 event in Graz, Austria. After three years off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Homeless World Cup took place last year in Sacramento, California, with this year’s set for Seoul, South Korea, in September.

    A number of nonspeaking roles in the film are played by those who have competed in the affair, lending that little bit of authenticity to “The Beautiful Game.”

    In the end, what Mal says about the Homeless World Cup may be true, that it’s not about winning. Instead, it would seem to be about lifting the spirit, as the movie inspired by it does.

    ———

    ‘THE BEAUTIFUL GAME’

    2.5 stars (out of 4)

    MPA rating: PG-13 (for some language, a suggestive reference, brief partial nudity and drug references)

    Running time: 2:05

    How to watch: On Netflix

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