Man, did Disney have money to burn back in the day. While it seems that the studio’s every film nowadays is in some way an exercise in brand management, its live-action output was a free-for-all of throwaway comedies just a few decades ago. Today’s bean counters wouldn’t give a dime to the likes of Gus, Snowball Express, The Gnome-mobile, or any of the other movies that were greenlit as the House of Mouse’s animation department fell out of favor with the public. But the ’90s saw a resurgence of such titles in the form of the “Wonderful World of Disney” programming block that aired on ABC. It was out of this line — one that gave us Bruce Campbell in a reboot of The Love Bug and cast Kirstie Alley as a tooth fairy long before The Rock underwent the same punishment — that The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon (that’s the movie’s poor punctuation use, not mine) somehow wormed its way into existence. But while I wish I could stand here and say that the film itself is as ridiculous as its attention-flagging title, it’s actually pretty mundane stuff, just another insanely-predictable sports comedy that still manages to work in a touch more genuine charm than its bigger-budgeted counterparts.
Barney Gorman (Tony Danza) is a schlub’s schlub. He gets up at the crack of dawn every morning to spend the day picking up Philadelphia’s trash as your friendly neighborhood garbage man. He’s got a good life, although his occupation is a source of embarrassment to his son Danny (Gil Filar), who goes so far as to keep his school’s Career Day a secret so his dad won’t come. But one day, a chance encounter at the local dump proceeds to change Barney’s life in the most unexpected way. Years of kicking a broken lever on his truck has strengthened Barney’s leg to the point that he can punt just about anything a long distance away. His talents catch the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles’ new owner (Ray Wise), who signs him on as a publicity stunt in order to raise ticket sales. Despite the misgivings of his teammates and his gruff coach (Art LaFleur), Barney becomes a surprising asset, training hard and helping the lead the Eagles to victory after victory. But both Barney’s fame and his ego proceed to swell with each game, causing him to lose sight of what he holds most dear: his family.
Within five minutes of pressing play on Phenomenon (the name I’ll be using from now on, since TGPFGKPP is an acronym as unwieldy as the actual title), I had the whole thing mapped out. Every joke and every subplot sprung to mind, the product of ages spent watching ten dozen other movies exactly like this one. Combined with the low-rent quality of filmmaking at work (which convinces you not once that Danza is ever standing on a legit football field), I thought I was in for a world of hurt with Phenomenon. But surprisingly, while the story does play out approximately 98 percent like how I thought it would, the flick ends up exuding more likability than one could anticipate. It’s formulaic as hell, yes, but it’s a formula that Disney has been working with for years, a tale about the little guy making it big that’s been told in everything from widespread theatrical releases like Invincible and The Rookie to small-scale stuff like this. Although Phenomenon hits all the familiar notes, that it doesn’t make a big deal out of them or try to force the drama actually works in its favor. It’s a very relaxed flick that eases you through each clichéd crisis it queues up; if a conflict that feels all too overdone emerges, the movie at the very least reassures you that it won’t be dwelled upon for very long.
Besides, if you’re going to make a film centered around an aw-shucks, working-class schmoe, hiring Tony Danza is just about the best move you could possibly make. There’s not much to say other than that the guy wastes no time in winning you over, getting by for quite a while on flustered smiles and nervous laughs alone. So likable is Danza that even when the time comes for Phenomenon to turn Barney into a jerk, you still root for the lug, since you’ve long since bought him as a dude who only wants what’s best for his family but is just dim enough to be easily led astray. That being said, part of me did wish that the humor and plotting — as good-natured as they are — had aspired beyond the pedestrian level at which they stubbornly remain. The most shocking plot development is that Wise’s character doesn’t have a scheme to ruin the team, as is the usual case in flicks like this. But there isn’t the mildest hint of suspense as to whether or not Barney will stop being a douche, patch things up with his family, and earn the respect of his fellow players. The story is a slave to predictability, and the sitcommy jokes and unexciting football action don’t make the process any less routine.
Sorry, future Nostalgia Critics of the world, but The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon is just too harmless to dissect for laughs. Its worst crime is rehashing a premise that Hollywood’s not about to loosen its claws on anytime soon, which isn’t to say there’s absolutely nothing about it one can find amusing. Phenomenon is a perfectly amiable distraction, a little on the conventional side (okay, a lot on the conventional side) but without a condescending bone in its body.