A League of Ordinary Gentlemen
2004Director: Christopher Browne
Cast: Pete Weber, Walter Ray Williams Jr.
ny interest in bowling that exists within this readership is probably there because of The Big Lebowski. Among people of a certain age, Lebowski was something of a watershed cultural event that carried with it profound lifestyle implications, in that it got us drinking White Russians, ordering pancakes in German and using words like “pederast” in casual conversation. Also, we do not fuck with the Jesus.
But Lebowski seems to have inspired very little attraction to the game itself, which I attribute to the fact that bowling is absolutely ludicrous. Hunter S. Thompson once described golf as an excuse for grown men to wear clothing they wouldn’t be caught dead in otherwise, and the same is true of bowling. It’s also a reason to stand in ridiculous poses, roll a large ball and get hardly any exercise, in service of a sport that is unnaturally conducive to heavy drinking and smoking among its participants. Sure, I’ll bowl on occasion, but only after consuming half my weight in Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As such, I’m curious about the people who take this sport seriously. On the rare occasion when I catch a few minutes of televised professional bowling—usually at unwieldy hours when the only other nocturnal viewing options are reruns of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and The 700 Club—it’s easy to wonder about men whose livelihood depends on the amazingness of their bowling. Do they have day jobs? Are groupies involved? Does a large percentage of the prize money go up the winner’s nose? Do they like The Big Lebowski?
As its title implies, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen blows the lid off the self-contained universe of the Professional Bowling Association, only to discover that its players’ lives are almost painfully normal. A neat little documentary, Ordinary Gentlemen has made its way around the festival circuit for about a year before finally getting some distribution this spring.
Filmmaker Chris Browne spent a season on tour with the PBA, and his timing was impeccable. After broadcasting tournaments for 35 years, ABC dropped its bowling coverage in 1997. An opening sequence cleverly charts bowling’s ascension in the 50s and 60s into one of the most popular national pastimes and the country’s most-watched sport, and its eventual collapse into the butt of ridicule, thanks partly to the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin. Yet even at its nadir, the sport drew a wider viewing audience than professional hockey, but generated substantially less advertising revenue, simply because the perceived value of pro bowling was so low. That’s where the narrative picks up, as a group of former Microsoft execs purchases the PBA and hires Steve Miller, a former Nike marketing man, to revitalize the sport’s image.
Lucky for him, there’s Pete Weber, the tour’s self-described “bad boy,” who, despite playing in the shadow of his more-famous father, PBA legend Dick Weber, manages to generate excitement by wearing sunglasses, pumping his fist and employing an assortment of crotch gestures. His foil is Walter Ray Williams Jr., who consistently dominates the tour’s biggest events, but is boring as dust. As the Pete Sampras to Weber’s Andre Agassi, Williams represents the straight-laced blue-collar blandness that Miller is trying to eliminate from the league.
While Weber and Williams move the story along, Browne provides a poignant dramatic subtext with his choice of supporting players. There’s family man Chris Barnes, a fresh-faced tour newcomer, who brims with optimism as he sends winnings back to his wife and newborn baby. On the other end of the spectrum is fading star Wayne Webb, part of the PBA’s exclusive “millionaire’s club,” who because of a gambling problem and tendency toward excess, is forced to work in a pro shop and run a karaoke show just to make ends meet. Ordinary Gentlemen follows his heartbreaking quest to regain the shreds of his former glory, as he loses to younger and younger bowlers and battles personal demons.
Each of these four players is given a rich back story, complete with archival footage that features a lot of impressively glistening mullets. Yet in its heavy reliance on the personal drama, Ordinary Gentlemen flirts with overkill and redundancy. Browne doesn’t give the peculiar business situation as much attention as it probably deserves, especially since Miller comes off as the sort of braying horse’s ass that could have carried the film had he gotten more screen time. His hilariously profane motivational speech at the annual PBA players’ meeting (closing line: “Either we’re in this together, or you can kiss my ass”) is worth the price of admission.
Ultimately, Ordinary Gentlemen paints an occasionally moving, occasionally dull slice-of-life portrait. I gained respect for these men without necessarily enhancing my admiration of their trade. Bowling remains a sport I will approach only with a wink and a considerable beer buzz, and the PBA is still an alien world whose finer points and rules will never be properly appreciated by the outsiders. Because, after all, this is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.