Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the “Oceans” franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects (“The Knick”, “Godless”), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.
Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks … a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished. Andre Holland (also one of the film’s producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray – although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client – hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick’s top pick contract has not yet been executed … so he’s in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.
Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray’s assistant who constantly reminds him, “I don’t work for you anymore”, despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners’ lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray’s boss.
Ray’s work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players’ image. Is it the league, the players’ association, or the player himself? It’s a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.
Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. “You care all the way or you don’t care at all” is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it’s quite obvious this isn’t the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.