"THE BEST OF TIMES" is a quirky, quixotic look at the Monday Night Football players of America, the living-room bench warmers who once were high school heroes, forever haunted by the fumbled balls and broken passes of their glory days.

John Madden would love this one just for the mud and stuff.

It's like "The Natural" in some ways, a comic tribute to playing fields and missed opportunities and the fantasy that we all would, if we could, do it over again, making it come out right in the end zone.

Robin Williams improvises a nerdy bank vice president, Jack Dundee, whose dream -- to replay a 12-year-old homecoming game -- becomes the occasion for salvaging a seedy little California desert town called Taft. Its only claim to fame was an invasion of mice. Now it languishes, a poor cousin to nearby Bakersfield, home of the Bears. The one time the Taft Rockets had the Bears, Jack dropped the ball in the final seconds of play.

Kurt Russell costars as quarterback Reno Hightower who fell and twisted his knee on the losing play, a gentle guy gone to flab. He's become a van customizer who's given up on going anywhere in life. He's lost the edge, grown lovable as an old loafer.

He resists a rematch because he knows he can't live up to his legendary prowess. Jack, on the other hand, is obsessed with proving himself, a passion that threatens his career, his marriage, not to mention his friendly business relationship with the town masseuse who persuades him to revive the grudge match, to play it again.

Jack's wife "is sick of anything with a ball in it." Vivacious, vivid Holly Palance plays Elly Dundee, the queen of that fateful homecoming, who has never ever lived down the dubious honor. And Pamela Reed is Reno's frustrated wife, the girl who got the football star and lives to regret it.

Jack, dressed as a Bear mascot, inflames old rivalries by painting the town Bakersfield orange. And Taft takes on new life as it gets ready for the rematch. While the Bears train high-tech like the Russkie boxer of "Rocky IV," the lumpy men of Taft block and tackle as of yore, drawing play plans with sticks in the soil.

The big game is all you hoped it would be comedically, a hop-footed parody of sports movies, with Jack opposite an ex-con named Dr. Death, and a touch of heroic pathos from Reno in the rain.

It's not always on target, but there's a spontaneity to the direction of Roger Spottiswoode of "Underfire," a loose, imaginative and screwy style. What holds it all together is the fine friendship between the two teammates, forged in the games men play, sapped by time, then rejuvenated in sweat and sport.