Professional bowling may not be cool, but Chris Browne’s engaging documentary about the once-popular pastime, which traces the attempted rejuvenation of the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) by three ex-Microsoft executives and five distinctive athletes, crafts a captivating portrait of America’s shifting entertainment preferences. After half a century of prominence, respect, and TV exposure (as the lead-in to ABC’s flagship “Wide World of Sports”), professional bowling tumbled into the gutter, a victim of the country’s mounting preference for exciting spectator sports (such as the ascendant NFL) and condescending opinion that the game was for uncouth, uncultured working-class slobs.
In 2000, new CEO Steve Miller (a former Nike bigwig with an uncompromising but effective corporate attitude) took the reins of the decrepit PBA and began transforming it into a glitzy, electrifying package characterized by outrageous personalities such as bad boy Paul “PBW” Weber, the sunglasses-wearing son of legend Dick Weber whose celebratory “crotch chop” heralded a new era of WWE-style promotion. The film, sympathetic to bowling’s dire plight while nonetheless clear-sighted about its shortcomings, charts both Miller’s efforts to reinvent the league and the day-to-day life of four pro bowlers: rude and crude Weber, buttoned-down league superstar (and horseshoe-pitching champion) Walter Ray Williams Jr., up-and-comer Chris Barnes, and down-on-his-luck faded great Wayne Webb.
As in Spellbound, Browne’s documentary is more concerned with the drama of competition (and during the 2003 season, there was surprisingly plenty) than with probing its characters’ personal stories. Though Weber and Webb’s career-threatening vices (drinking, gambling) are often fleetingly mentioned, the absence of specific details results in superficial character sketches defined by solitary personality traits (Williams doesn’t like Weber’s vulgar behavior; Weber lets his wife Tracy handle every aspect of his non-gameday life; Barnes loves his two sons). The film scores a strike, however, in even-handedly (if somewhat cursorily) commenting on the societal impetuses behind bowling’s escalating marginalization. Pitted against marketing-savvy leagues like the NBA and MLB, bowling acquired the dreaded label of being “boring,” a designation compounded by its image as a game fit for beer-guzzling, chain-smoking fatsos.
The film wisely admits—via the image of top-notch bowlers with sweat-stained beer bellies, as well as with a reality-mirroring-fiction scene featuring Odor Eaters (the tongue-in-cheek sponsor of Woody Harrelson in the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin) actually endorsing Williams—that some of the sport’s problematic stereotypes contain more than a hint of truth. Yet in Miller’s valiant attempts to give his product a hip makeover by means of Weber’s showmanship and graphics-heavy ESPN broadcasts, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen shrewdly captures the way in which unassuming, workmanlike skill (embodied by the modest Williams and Webb) increasingly has no place in a sports-entertainment culture driven by short attention span-grabbing shock tactics.