A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

There's nothing like a good documentary to expose a niche group of society that people rarely take interest in - "American Movie" tackled the aspiring Midwestern horror filmmaker, "Spinal Tap" dealt with rock stars in decline, and "Best in Show" portrayed dog-show enthusiasts. Though the latter two are technically fiction, the formula nonetheless tends to yield side-clutching laughter alongside poignant truths. But Christopher Browne's new documentary, "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen", needs no fiction to succeed - for its muse, it takes on the professional bowler.

Far more than comedy, the film will also vanquish common misconceptions of America's favorite pastime. We learn that the "most watched sport on television" is also the "most participatory sport in the USA", and, in fact, "more people play bowling than vote." We see black and white images of the early days, with footage of Presidents Nixon and Clinton at the alley. Ten minutes into the film, the average viewer will realize that rather like the support President Bush garnered in the vast sea of red states between New York and Los Angeles, he or she has grossly underestimated the power and popularity of something the media often portrays as silly, ridiculous and undeserving of any respect.

Pete Weber's Infamous Crotch Shot

Take the film, "Kingpin", for instance. In this popular Farrelly brothers' movie, a down-and-out ex-pro with a rubber hand takes on an aspiring Amish bowler as his protégé, but ends up facing his bitter old rival (Bill Murray) himself in one final match-up; he loses again, but receives a sponsorship from Trojan condoms as the "Rubber Man". This spirit probably sums up many people's estimation of professional bowling. And indeed, much of Bill Murray's character study must have come from reviewing tapes of the bad-boy of the Professional Bowling Association, Pete Weber. But the documentary succeeds because after dropping viewers' jaws by underlining the national obsession with the sport, it gets personal with a select few characters of the PBA tour. An eclectic mix of players, and the climactic events that unfold during the countdown to the PBA Championship, could not be better scripted.

Here are the players: Walter Ray Williams, Jr. is the coolheaded, conservative reigning champion of the PBA, who also holds the national horseshoe title. In the opposite corner, stands the gaudy and temperamental Pete Weber - that guy who bowls wearing sunglasses, and is responsible for inventing the post-strike celebratory "crotch shot" on national television. At one point in the film, another of Browne's focal personas, the type A President of the PBA, Steve Miller, turns to Weber and tells him, "You're my guy." Clearly, the showman-like qualities of "Petey W" played a significant part in the sport's renaissance, and the man at the top takes any publicity he can get.

But alongside player antics and competitiveness, Browne also presents us the darker, more arduous side of the professional bowler. Those who have made the sport their livelihood take up serious risks: the wellbeing of young families is at stake; wives and children trudge around the nation supporting their hopefuls on tour; for some, touring festers gambling and drinking problems. With one-time champion Wayne Webb, 27 years of complete immersion in the game have left him lost - twice bankrupt, seriously depressed with no family or life, his final option is to give up and work on starting a small karaoke business.

Pete Weber in the 1980s

Nonetheless, the show goes on - at least for a certain few. "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" culminates with a final showdown between Williams and Weber that will leave you unexpectedly rapt. You'll catch yourself doing exactly what I did - stopping to ask yourself how it happened that you're willingly sitting through the duration of a full bowling match, and why you suddenly care about these funny-looking losers who are (moderately) famous for knocking down pins.

The answer, of course, is that director Christopher Browne has discovered an entertaining, engrossing way to make you watch. After "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen," you'll probably learn something new about America, but you'll definitely never look at bowling the same way ever again.

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