Warren Cantrell is at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival seeing as many movies as he can and filing reviews and reports as he goes.
They keep circling back into cinemas because certain particulars exclusive to competitive contests never run out of steam. The last-second jump shot, the bottom-of-the-ninth home run, a goal finding the back of the net in a game’s waning moments — these are and always will be timeless and universal flashes of human glory, and will thus be celebrated in perpetuity.
And then there’s curling. A “sport” in only the strictest definition of the word, curling is lower even than bowling in the sacred sports fraternity, for the level of athletic prowess required to dominate the game is on par with what’s needed to compete in a Hawaiian beer drinking contest. Yet as the Norwegian comedy Curling King (aka Kong Curling) demonstrates, the sport’s enthusiasts and practitioners feel that the ancient stone-sliding pastime is a delicate and precise marriage between skill and art, and one to be taken very, very seriously.
This “game of millimeters” is certainly something the movie’s main character, Truls Paulsen (Atle Antonsen), takes seriously, so much so that the film begins by explaining that he’d assaulted a judge during a match, only to turn up days later half naked in a field, trying like all hell to construct a curling target using massive bales of hay. Formally institutionalized because of this little incident, the movie picks up with Truls’ release. Finally set free after10 years in the loony bin, Truls reenters the world only to find that his team’s disbanded, and that his childhood friend and mentor, Gordon, is dying of lung cancer.
Naturally, the familiar trappings of the traditional sports film emerge and inspire Truls to get the team back together for one last curling tournament, one whose purse will net enough money to pay for mentor Gordon’s operation (naturally). What makes Curling King so entertaining isn’t its plot, which we’ve all seen countless times before, but rather its tender treatment of its lead character and the loyal friends that surround him. As an audience, we aren’t surprised when the familiar themes of believing in one’s self and persistence in the face of adversity bubble to the surface, but are when director Ole Endresen transcends these industry clichés via characters that are somehow frantically unstable yet unavoidably endearing all at once.
In this way, Curling King feels a lot like an Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson film, for its characters are fatally flawed yet endowed with a special purpose unique to that film’s specific universe. This is enhanced by stunning visuals that are rich and bold, yet never oppressively obtuse: Truls’ recurring yellow theme especially striking. Curling King’s distinct universe creates a very cozy pocket in which the film’s characters can thrive. (Fans of The Life Aquatic will be especially delighted by the homage score heard during Curling King’s bird-watch scene.)
That said, if you’re not a fan of Anderson or Payne, or of silly sports films like Dodgeball or Talladega Nights, you probably won’t like this movie. In fact, if you hate everything about that last sentence, you’d do best to avoid this movie like it’s the clap-having office whore. At its core, Curling King is an asinine sports comedy with an extremely dry sense of humor very much its own. While it follows the basic thread of movies like Dodgeball (team in trouble, need to raise money, asshole rival, etc, etc), it sets itself apart by striving to be a film with enough style to both charm and humor.
There’s actually a few surprisingly touching and unique moments in Curling King, one a happily placated and amused viewer might assume belong in another movie: one with a far more impressive pedigree than the stock sports comedy. One such moment involves the hilarious battle of wills between Paulsen team member, Espen (Jan Sælid), and a vending machine delivery man, one that leads to one of the most touching father-son moments this author has ever seen put to film. Another comes when Truls decides that loyalty and friendship trump all other concerns, including notions of dignity that might have to be confronted when a person’s getaway is made on a scooter.
The picture’s funniest moments come out of Truls’ deadpan acting and minimalist approach to the material, for what could have easily been played up for slapstick humor was instead toned down for laughs far more rewarding. The counterpoint to this was Truls’ sex-crazed teammate, Marcus, played by Jon Øigarden, an actor who practically steals the movie.
Tragically short at a meager 73 minutes, the only complaint that might be leveled against the film is its failure to give even more to its audience. Perhaps an extra five minutes early on to show a little bit more of Truls in the mental institution, or another five or so later on to outline the team’s training methods and preparations for the nationals?
Already generating a lot of buzz at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, this extra handful of minutes might easily have pushed this film over the top, where movies proudly displaying a Rock Fist Way Up live and prosper.