Movie Review: ‘Break Point’

I don’t play tennis, but I imagine anyone who takes it up gets sick of “Head” puns well before they’ve even started to contemplate their backhand. Break Point, a tennis-themed dramedy whose release is timed, I imagine, to coincide with the U.S. Open, is not above such a pun, and it’s emblematic of the film’s half-committed approach to its own humor that this joke lands better than most in the film. Most of the comedy, such as it is, just dissipates under Jay Karas’ wishy-washy direction (which is a bit surprising given that Karas’ credits include several standup specials). Even J.K. Simmons, who could easily wring a few laughs out of this material, is oddly muted. He plays everything disarmingly straight, which suggests that Break Point represents a failure of approach: it hasn’t decided if it wants to be a comedy or a drama, and so it ends up being too indistinct to work as drama and not sharp enough to work as comedy.

Despite its fondness for gags like the “scrotum ball” — gaining the upper hand on one’s opponent by rubbing the tennis ball on one’s scrotum — which could hardly be considered highbrow, Break Point is not content to be a simple comedy. It also a drama of brotherhood and redemption and things like that. Jeremy Sisto, in the film’s livelier and more interesting performance, plays Jimmy, an immature, hard-drinking tennis player well past his prime, looking for one last shot at a tournament run. When his partner leaves him he turns to his semi-estranged brother Darren (David Walton), a lonely substitute teacher whose oddball student Barry (Joshua Rush) refuses to leave him alone even though it is summer break. As Jimmy and Darren train for the tournament they grow closer to each other and to Barry, who is taken on as a kind of surrogate baby brother. In the process, they “work through their shit.” Which is to say that at one point they get into a fistfight and Darren cries, “Mom died and you left me!”

In other words, they are stock types playing out a stock drama within a stock mildly-quirky-indie-dramedy aesthetic. J.K. Simmons plays Darren and Jimmy’s father because he is legally obligated to appear in all mildly quirky indie dramedies. Darren is that most venerable of stock “indie” types, the lonely sadsack who just needs a self-esteem boost to get his life on track and finally steal the nice girl away from her successful douchebag boyfriend. He drives a leased Kia Sorrento because it is an obvious symbol of the patheticness of his life.

If Break Point had been made, say, eight years ago, Luke Wilson would be playing this role with the same bored-with-life expression that Walton wears the entire time. (Actually, if you told me this whole film was based on a decade-old script intended for Luke and Owen Wilson, things would start to make more sense.) He, of course, bonds with Barry, one of those only-in-the-indies kids, whose clinginess and weird matchy outfits are just a front for a troubled homelife. Everyone is a little bit funny and a little bit sad. Except nobody is either, and that’s the problem. The only character to break out of the indie dramedy trap in even the slightest way is Jimmy, mostly because Sisto has the right look for the part of a formerly great athlete who has let himself go over the years; the fat is just starting to overtake the muscle. His profane immaturity isn’t any fresher than Darren’s forlornness, but it is more fun to watch.

In moments brief and fleeting Sisto and Walton lock into a synched-up brotherly groove, and Break Point almost starts to justify its existence. Darren and Jimmy volley the ball back and forth as they trade off a verse of “Bust a Move.” It’s a loose, real moment. But more often Break Point is observing that Jimmy hits the ball too hard, while Darren misses a lot of opportunities to score. Gee, you think their problems on the court might relate to their problems in life?

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