In Billy Wilder’s immortal Sunset Boulevard, there is a famous scene in which Norma Desmond plays cards with the “Waxworks”, stars from the silent era who, like Desmond, have become antiques in a sound Hollywood. In a wan half-stupor they smoke and conduct bridge, shadows of a time gone by.
Like Gloria Swanson, who plays Desmond, the Waxworks are played by real silent film stars who found themselves unemployable in the new Hollywood: Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner. The scene resonates sadness across diegetic bounds and the entire ordeal is pre-eminently depressing.
Watching John Cleese in Herman Vaske’s piece, The Art of Soccer gets very close to a similar misery. Every so often the old Python is trotted out in set piece style as if to say, “Hey! This guy was funny. Isn’t our film hilarious now?” Unfortunately, much like Desmond and her waxworks, Cleese and his brand of humor no longer mesh terribly well with the modern climate of comedy. It isn’t so much that we have evolved past Python-esque British humor; it’s that comedy does not take well to regurgitation. Cleese’s mere presence suggests citation rather than inventiveness.
However, for what it’s worth, The Art of Soccer is awful all on its own. Co-written by Cleese, The Art of Soccer is phoned in from its script to its production quality. Shot on what appears to be a prosumer camcorder, the film is structured as an A-to-Z of soccer’s history. Each letter is introduced by a skit between Cleese and “Max” (Tom Konkle) in which Cleese gives a little background of some concept of soccer, makes fun of America’s Yankee oddities, and injures Max in some crazy antic. To say that the whole rigmarole seems forced would be a tragic understatement.
What’s worse is that Cleese seems to be well aware of his pandering, as he plays a caricature of himself. His British accent is emphasized, his face contorts wildly, and his movements are stiff as he mugs arthritically. Always the ham, Cleese seems to be bereft of all of the joy that made his characters so goofily loveable. Instead of the rapid pit-a-pat of his Python days, Cleese’s monologues are filled with one-offs begging for a rimshot.
The clips themselves of the aspects of soccer are not at all bad, though. As an elaborate highlight reel, The Art of Soccer succeeds nicely. The director marshals a fine cast of soccer stars, artists, and Henry Kissinger to interview about their love of the game. The editing is smooth and the clips of fantastically contorted headers, Baryshnikov-deft dribbling and goals of ambiguous physics are rewarding.
However, as it seems, every good idea in Soccer is glazed over with sophomoric filmmaking. At some point in the post-production, an avid colorist must have suggested that the interviews should be intermittently treated to look like they were shot on 16mm in a variety of poor film stocks and bad lighting conditions. This decision wouldn’t be so bad if it was at all consistent. Sometimes, Pelé looks garishly sharp in video and, at other times, he is blown out and almost sepia. The whole ordeal distracts from the few high points in this piece.
Finally, the A-to-Z format of The Art of Soccer makes it seem as if the film’s 118 minutes take ages. Somewhere around the time that Cleese subjects Max to his 12th pratfall, I found myself wondering, “We are only on G?” Any rhythmic consistency that the clips’ editing builds is shattered by the uninventive structure.
Sunset Boulevard is likely best remembered by the quotation, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” For once, there is no question about whether the film is insignificant or the actor. In The Art of Soccer both Cleese and the picture trumpet irrelevance. Potential buyers would be better served by Youtubing “sweet soccer clips”. The quality would only be a little diminished and you would not be forced to sit through the Madame Tussaud ex-Python.