If you’ve ever been thrilled by the charms of a musical supergroup – i.e., Them Crooked Vultures, The Traveling Wilburys, or Crosby Stills Nash & Young (RIP David), the collision of both their talent and spirit is more than destined to resonate with a specific audience, wide or niche. Any major studio feature these days involving a veteran cast often works the same way, where the players’ combined charisma can often overcompensate for a shortcoming gimmick. The Expendables franchise skewed most men, the likes of Last Vegas and Book Club seemed to be engineered for couples. And Girls Trip mustered enough cache to appease those younger folks looking for rapid-fire, acrobatic quips. The next in this line finds its harmonic convergence in attracting the older set with deep ties in sports fandoms. Or at least, the two corners when separated. The way 80 For Brady is written, it fits that demo. Like gloves adorned with rhinestones, glittering with humor derived from a sitcom playbook instead of a gridiron counterpart.
I’d imagine 40 years prior, the combination of four top names – Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sally Field, and Rita Moreno – together in a TV pilot or madcap screen comedy would make a slaying. This grouping is almost undeserving of the material handed to them, an equally hit-and-miss script by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins (Booksmart). With only structural guidance by first-time director Kyle Marvin (The Climb), they all find electric ways to elevate both words and actions to a rather heartfelt place, half of the time. The other time, the weight of its excess in hijinks manages to weigh down its better fortune.
It’s all based on a true story. Four best friends living in Boston, hovering around their eighties, bonding over the Patriots, and then-star QB Tom Brady. Their end goal: see their hero complete his run in Houston for Super Bowl LI. It all started with Lou (Tomlin), keeping her spirits up in the early 2000s while battling cancer, who attempts to win four tickets to the game via a call-in show. She’s the captain of her team, never shying away from rational problem solving, despite further conflicts and concerns from daughter Sara (Sara Gilbert), and her allies know it.
For MIT professor Betty (Field), it’s her hubby Mark’s (Bob Balaban) desperate need for help and/or approval. For spokeswoman turned professional football romance novelist Trish (Fonda), it’s the desire to keep a relationship beyond a single day. A challenge placed on notice when falling for former footballer Dan (Harry Hamlin). And with Maura (Moreno), it’s a position of what to let go of, widowed, living in a retirement community, batting off the charms of new neighbor Mickey (Glynn Turman). All these avenues crash atop one another, while silly events break up the otherwise endearing slew of character-building. Again, sitcom-level showboating, stumbling forward on its face to outbalance the former.
Even still, there might be a higher purpose for Halpern and Haskins’ script to dance with the silly. It’s imperfect, and cheesy, taking a few cheap shots along its path in the name of an easy, inoffensive laugh. Like it was one of Trish’s pieces of clear-cut fanfiction, punched up with jokes aplenty. When they add up, however, it might be just as easy to find holes poked into the defenses of fandom culture and the fanfare-laden devotion to sport and spectacle. All the flourishes of a hype machine revolving around a significant event are on display, like extreme tailgating (involving Guy Fieri and a hot wing contest). So too is the ground for mishaps between Lou and her gals, like recreational drugs at a party with celebs, and one egoless dance choreographer (an effervescent Billy Porter). And that annoyingly cynical third party, speaking on local TV or an online outlet to scold and criticize. Both Alex Moffat and Rob Corddry nail that attitude with accurate New Englander drawls as the face-forward TV hosts, to the point their presence turns disruptive.
Such can be a community bonded by their shared experiences, it’s not always pretty or plasticine. And even as Marvin navigates two distinct types of comic acerbity, he’s clearly living for whatever realism he can interject versus the apparent fantasy. Likely to the point where we may wonder whether the true-life accounts would’ve been more exciting. Not so much a comedy, more like a documentary footnote. Whenever a joke doesn’t land, floats away, or is brushed about too many times – the nascent infatuation with edibles adds up to time wasted, really – the story answers back with a down-to-earth mindset.
There can be room for truth in friendship; Halpern and Haskins are no strangers to invoking the joy of reality, even in the most heightened or fanciful of circumstances. That attitude is well emblazoned between their stars. All four of them carry something wonderfully unique to the table, even as they can’t entirely escape the goofier aspect of their misadventures. Moreno, at age 91, brings forth lively energy and catty wisdom. Fonda’s strengths here revolve around intelligence and hubris, well encapsulated in her chemistry with a charming Hamlin. Field, the sharp-as-tacks comic timing. It’s been some time since she could flex her muscles in straightforward comedy, let alone one with a comforting awkwardness; here, she makes use of every moment on screen, corny or not. And Tomlin’s the inner warmth, the superglue, a steady heart only building in vibrancy at points, weariness for an uncertain future at others. When it clicks, it’s in varied notches.
Call it a PB&J sandwich, of sorts. Familiar performers have a fun time feeding off each other’s spirits, bookended by a bread-like, formula-heavy story. The sort that’s accentuated in eye-catching aura (or baseline Hollywood magic, gussying up LA for Texas) via Oscar-winning DP John Toll (The Matrix Resurrections). In similar auditory balance through an above-standard John Debney (Luck) score, and a Diane Warren-penned tune bound to fade in the radio shuffle. And simultaneously punched up by inconsistent, overly tidy comic beats, paired with equally resonant touches of real-life consequence. Even Brady, who goes full-on self-insert figurehead in a few scenes is proven guilty of both. The latter clearly plays stronger than the former, even when the mood scuttles toward bleak self-awareness. All mild wobbles that neither help nor hurt its chances of approaching the end zone.
80 for Brady was easy enough to dig into, solely for its merit as cinematic comfort food. Pandering to a medium bar, but never speaking completely downward with its appreciation for football, its idols, and the fans who’d follow them on a glorious journey. The prize may be witnessing a moment in history; the real victory is more in friendships affirmed. Marvin can at least score a three-pointer in focusing less on the game, than on the people. That’s why this film works as well as it does, incompletely, starved for better jokes, and yet no less heartfelt. A lively trip, worth inviting older audiences back to the multiplex; if not, expect it to do gangbusters on Paramount+ down the road. (B-; 3/5 Horns Up!)
80 for Brady opens in theaters February 3; rated PG-13 for brief strong language, suggestive references, and some drug content; 98 minutes.