At the core of "The Best of Times" (citywide Friday) is a nearly irresistible premise: Suppose you could somehow wind the clock back past the moment that most embarrasses you, that worst of times when you choked, failed everybody and went down in disgrace. Could you, with added wisdom and perspective, redeem your fatal flop? Wipe it out? Or would you, as Marcel Proust suggested, prove we learn nothing from our mistakes, but that we are doomed to repeat them?
"The Best of Times" cannily plays it both ways: giving us a lip-smacking tale of all-American wish-fulfillment and a witty satire of its dangers. The dreamer is Jack Dundee (Robin Williams), obsessed with the time, a decade ago, when he dropped a 65-yard touchdown pass from star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), destroying Taft High School's chance to break an eternal losing streak against arch-rival Bakersfield. The movie follows Jack's try to exorcise his demons by fast-talking the Taft alumni into replaying the game, in the hope that fate will make sticky his fingers and fleet his feet if the long bomb comes his way again.
It's a story idea that seems dubious at first, but manages to flesh out wondrously--mostly because scenarist Ron Shelton has such a wickedly tight grip on the absurdities and dynamics of small American cities. His Taft (the town near Bakersfield where USA for Africa's Hands Across America video was recently shot) is a barren, played-out-looking place, dotted with empty stores and oil wells that resemble huge, abandoned Tinker Toys . . . the dead end of the American Dream. This is a town with a cabaret where the lounge act "star" balances chairs with his teeth. In this post-McLuhan backwater, football has a ritualistic significance: The high school athletes are gladiators, carrying--for one brief shining burst--the town's honor. Their elders are has-beens (or like Jack, a never-was) reduced to flabby spectatorship, couch-potato junkies hooked on a weekly fix of "Monday Night Football."
The irony is that disgrace didn't ruin Jack. It may, in fact, have helped spur him on to his somewhat ridiculous success: marriage to the daughter (Holly Palance) of a Bakersfield booster-nabob (Donald Moffat) and vice presidency of the Taft branch bank. But his role is equivocal.
The town cozies up to him for loans and mortgages, but he's still "Iron Hands" Dundee, the klutz who dropped the ball, one more dorky symbol of Taft's century of futility. Jack's logic (in a way, he's right) is that, in towns like Taft, nothing really matters but The Game. It was his only real chance for heroism. Even worse, the genuine hero, Reno Hightower, was the real loser that day. His knee shattered on the play Jack blew, he's now a beer-bellied, unkempt mechanic and auto painter (he decorates vans with copies of "Starry Night" and signs them "Van Go!") whose ex-homecoming-queen wife (Pamela Reed) wants to ditch him for Los Angeles. Reno, like Jack, has a last pure shot at redemption with The Game. But, unlike Jack, he has no need. He knows he was good.
Shelton's script is so wonderful that you can forgive its excesses and flaws: the way it never quite convinces you of the budding buddyhood between Jack and Reno, the way it over-schematizes their marital wrangles. It's probably fitting that Shelton, like Kurt Russell, was once a semi-pro athlete (a baseball infielder). He has a trenchant slant. He doesn't give us that fairy-tale jock-schlock milieu Sylvester Stallone keeps sloshing around. (The "Rocky" movies are exactly what someone like Jack Dundee would dream up: Dundee, who wrote a prize-winning senior essay titled "God, My Friend.") Shelton's viewpoint is acid, but affectionate. Director Roger Spottiswoode (who made "Under Fire" with him) serves it up with nice economy, a crisp cool eye, wry speed.
Maybe the best thing about "The Best of Times" is its co-stars: Williams and Russell. The wives, Moffat, M. Emmet Walsh and the rest of the cast are good--but these two couldn't be better. As Reno, Russell really captures the essence of a small-town Golden Boy gone to seed: He not only convinces you that he once had all the moves, he makes you sorry he's lost them.
Williams, maybe the most brilliant comic actor around, makes Jack just pushy and obnoxious enough--enough of a genuine dork--to keep you off balance and guessing all the way through. Spazzy, snazzy Jack has a weird self-conscious slickness, and sometimes Williams carries him into mad inspiration: as in one fantastic bedroom strut, whirl and strip-tease pirouette for Mrs. Dundee, topped off with the clip-tongued lascivious chant: " Got- ta, got -ta satisfy! "