There’s a terrific film out there somewhere about African-American sprinter Jesse Owens, who overcame racial prejudice in both America and Nazi Germany on his way to Olympic gold.
Owens, a pioneer in the world of track and field as much for his courage and perseverance off the track as his athletic accomplishments, is a more than worthy candidate to be honored with a feature film biopic of his life story.
Unfortunately, the new Focus Features film “Race” simply isn’t it. To be sure, it’s the rare biopic where viewers are left wanting to see more of the person the film is ostensibly about.
Even the racial tensions of the 1930s are treated with more of a winking “you know what we’re talking about here” rather than tackle issues head on as more heralded films like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have.
This isn’t to say that Stephan James, the up-and-coming actor charged with bringing Owens to life on screen, doesn’t do a remarkable job in the role. James plays with great subtlety Owens’ inner conflict between simply doing right by his family and serving as an international spotlight to a greater cause.
It’s a performance that shows great strides toward a long, prosperous career in film, but is sorely wasted by a lackluster ensemble and shoddy screenplay.
“Race” suffers most from the fact that director Stephen Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse try to do too many different things and fail to succeed at most of them, making “Race” a mediocre film at best.
At 134 minutes, the film sits about a half-hour too long for comfort.
While the story should rightly be focused on the trials and tribulations of a Olympic gold medalist dealing with racial prejudice in the 1930s, large segments of “Race” have viewers mired in geo-political debates between the American and Nazi German Olympic committees as a means of setting the stage for the film’s final act at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
This bi-coastal game of World War II-era plot hopscotch isn’t something new, but last year’s “Woman in Gold” directed by Simon Curtis does a far more effective job of counter-balancing multiple storylines.
“We’re the Millers” lead Jason Sudeikis is horribly miscast for the part of Owens’ college coach Larry Snyder as the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian just doesn’t have the acting chops for heavy drama.
His performance feels like Sudeikis is aiming for a caricature of what legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry would look like if he coached track and field, but Sudeikis can’t even hit that. This comes as a major letdown after his surprising, yet terrific turn last year in the independent dramedy “Sleeping with Other People,” which is highly recommended.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels plays far too large a role both as an on-screen and off-screen character within “Race,” though Barnaby Metschurat’s performance is stoic and effective when it needs to be.
Largely, the German leadership in “Race” – Goebbels, a distant Adolf Hitler and propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl – come off as cartoonish vaudeville baddies twisting their mustaches like the villainous Dick Dasterdly from Hanna-Barbera’s “Wacky Races”.
Looking at the film by the sum of its parts, it’s clear that Hopkins didn’t know what kind of movie he wanted to make with “Race,” so he tried, and failed, to make every kind he could think of.
Those hoping for a more traditional sports drama won’t really find what they’re looking for until the film’s final act and it’s in the moments “Race” follows Owens’ athletic pursuits on the track that the film is most compelling.
However, there’s a much better option now in theaters with “Eddie the Eagle,” which stars Taron Egerton as Michael “Eddie” Edwards, a young Brit seeking to become an Olympic ski jumper no matter the cost.
When we ultimately look back on “Race” several years from now, moviegoers will lament what could have been done with such a rich narrative history as Owens’ career. For now, it simply goes down as a mild disappointment and a film worth waiting to catch on DVD.