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Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons) is having a bad day. After years of coming so close to an NCAA Championship that he can taste it, he is now faced with his best chance to bring home the win. His star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) won the Heisman, and is so good, he’s set to earn a $35 million payday in the NFL Draft. Coach also has a smart, sexy wife, Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth) who dotes on him and makes all his old, balding cronies and colleagues envious. He makes $5 million a year, owns multiple houses and has the adoration of fans and sports media alike, all of whom are rooting for him to finally achieve football immortality.
Why is Coach Lazor having a bad day, you ask? Well, in director Ric Roman Waugh’s “National Champions,” LeMarcus James has decided to go on strike against the NCAA and not play. And he’s convincing enough to get several players from both teams to follow his lead 72 hours before the championship game. Additionally, Lazor’s penis doesn’t work without Pfizer’s intervention and his wife’s leaving him for Elliott (Timothy Olyphant), a professor at the very same institution where he’s been coaching. Now, I’m sure you want to hear all about Seth Bullock from “Deadwood” makin’ sweet, sweet love to Glinda from “Wicked,” so—oh wait, you want to learn more about that NCAA strike? OK, it’s your nickel, buddy.
To be honest, I too wanted to know more about James’ plans for going up against the gigantic business behemoth that controversially makes billions off its student-athletes. There’s plenty to talk about and argue over, which makes the plot of this film potentially intriguing. However, outside of throwing a bunch of monetary figures at the viewer, writer Adam Mervis’ screenplay offers very little substance for James’ plan or his rationale. Instead, “National Champions” devotes most of its time to a contest to see which of its multi-talented cast members can utter the worst dialogue or reveal the most absurd nighttime soap opera plot twists. This is like an episode of “Dynasty” produced by ESPN. If you thought my line about Coach Lazor’s erectile dysfunction was extraneous and unwarranted, you should hear the speech where he reveals that very detail.
Let me set that stage for you. We’re four or five plot twists in. PR maven/blackmail expert extraordinaire Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba) has convinced Lazor he needs to speak to his team to counter some of the success James has had recruiting members for his cause. The coach’s job is to sweet talk these impressionable minds into not thinking about the possibility of getting perks like medical insurance and money for playing. This rich-as-hell man steps into the room and, after talking about his junk being hors de combat and his wife leaving him, tells these broke-ass kids that “money isn’t shit. There is no glory in money. No life-altering challenge in money.” Then he exclaims “but there’s glory on the field!”
It’s to Simmons’ credit that he can sell lines like these without looking ridiculous. He’s joined in this miraculous ability by Tim Blake Nelson as a twang-infused sideman named Rodger, and Aduba as a ruthless mudslinger adorned with the most awesome power suits this side of Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington. When James’ best buddy and fellow strike planner, Emmett (Alexander Ludwig) calls her heartless after she threatens them with her latest piece of blackmail material, she launches into a fiery speech where she says absolutely nothing of use. Aduba goes full Viola Davis on us, and it’s effective so long as you don’t listen to a damn thing she’s saying. Later, Nelson gets his moment to shine in a hilarious scene between him and a cute hotel waiter whose intentions he flirtatiously misunderstands.
Lil Rel Howery is also here, playing the assistant coach who has a shot of becoming the first Black coach to play in a championship game should Lazor have a stroke or something. “National Champions” throws details like this out and then quickly discards them without delving into just how interesting they might be. The entire film is like this, dangling carrots of importance before reverting to silly back-and-forth scenes of threats, blackmail, and one-upmanship. You need a blackboard full of X’s and O’s to keep track of the petty plays this movie's running. On top of all this, there’s a convenient onscreen countdown to game day meant to evoke suspense.
I like soapy things, so I admit I enjoyed some of these shenanigans more than I should have. But they leave poor Stephan James holding the bag as the straight man. His concerns and demands should have been treated with more depth and sincerity. If nothing else, he does get to recite Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel 25:17 speech from “Pulp Fiction” for no reason. It’s the first speech we get in the movie. At first, I thought it was just an odd use of nostalgia. Now I know it was a warning of what I’d be in for over the next two hours.
Now playing in theaters.
J.K. Simmons as Coach James Lazor
Stephan James as LeMarcus James
Kristin Chenoweth as Bailey Lazor
Uzo Aduba as Katherine
Alexander Ludwig as Emmett Sunday
Timothy Olyphant as Elliott Schmidt
Lil Rel Howery as Coach Ronnie Dunn
Tim Blake Nelson as Rodger
David Koechner as Everly