PLAYOFF: FILM REVIEW
Hoosiers meets the Holocaust in Playoff, an uneven amalgam of historical drama and inspirational sports flick from Israeli director Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride).
Inspired by the real life story of Ralph Klein, a WWII refugee who became a basketball legend in Israel and controversially coached the West Germans in the 1984 Olympic Games, the film scores points for tackling touchy themes with strong performances, but its many disparate elements never fuse into an engaging whole. Small-scale French release will be followed by Jewish fest slots and niche art house distribution targeted at the senior set.
Starring Danny Huston as Max Stoller, a no-nonsense B-ball trainer who travels from Tel-Aviv to Frankfurt to head up Germany's scrawny bunch of Olympic hopefuls, the scenario (by Gidon Maron and David Akerman) promises a scrubs-to-stars sports saga in its early stages, only to have athletics lose out to histrionics as the narrative progresses. Although Max at first offers his players some awfully classic pep talks ("I want you to reach for the stars," etc.), he seems, at least in terms of screen time, to quickly lose interest in them, spending his days wandering the neighborhood where he and his family lived under Nazi rule before escaping to Israel. But as Max soon discovers, the old haunts are not exactly what they used to be, with immigrants and squatters occupying the apartments and businesses abandoned by the Jewish population, all but absent from the city (save for one bizarre Rosh Hashanah scene set in a tacky 80s disco, exotic dancers included).
When he eventually decides to knock on the door of the flat he grew up in, Max encounters rebellious Turkish teen, Sema (Selen Savas) and her mother, Deniz (Amira Casar), who are fending for themselves after their deadbeat dad/husband walked out on them. Meanwhile, Max is still plagued by the guilt of his own dad's disappearance, and the three eventually form an unlikely bond as they search for the truth behind their missing father figures.
A parallel plot involving the team's fiery point guard, Thomas (Max Riemelt, The Wave), further explores issues related to the war, but heads to mostly predictable places, while the basketball narrative practically disappears in the third act. Thus Playoff never quite delivers the nail-biting big game finale one could hope for, and the sports sequences themselves are extremely weak-more akin to a schoolyard pickup match than to an Olympic level tournament. (As the closing credits explain, West Germany actually wound up ranking 8th in the '84 games, and were eliminated by a U.S. all-star team that included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.)
While Riklis has every right to favor intimate drama over slam dunks, he never hits the emotional marks of his broad political films The Siberian Bride and Lemon Tree, which managed to tackle issues of religion, gender and identity with more craft and less schmaltz. And although the talented Huston (Wrath of the Titans) and Casar (The Last Mistress) offer up earnest turns, the direction is too stiff and generic to rally us to their side. Tech credits are adequate in a TV-ish way. Soundtrack is peppered with period chart-toppers like the Fame theme song.