In the crude and amiable "The Best of Times," Jack Dundee (Robin Williams), a bespectacled banker, can't forget the big game 12 years ago when quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), now a van customizer, unloaded the long bomb, and he ran and ran and . . . dropped it. The rest of the movie goes something like this:
Can he play the game again? He can't play the game again. Can he play the game again? He can't play the game again. Can he play the game again? He does play the game again!
The two teams, older and mostly fatter, train and play, and I trust I won't be ruining anything for you if I say there are no surprises. Screenwriter Ron Shelton has constructed a stand-up-and-cheer machine, and while the machine works, it doesn't make you feel any better about being run through it.
What saves "The Best of Times" are the moments when Shelton turns the machine off -- the movie's actually best when the story comes to a standstill. Dundee's obsession (and the prospect of a second humiliation) are more than his wife Elly (a bland Holly Palance) can stand, so she tosses him out of the house. Gigi Hightower (Pamela Reed), on the other hand, is fed up with Reno's lack of ambition and slovenly habits.
Of course, they can't stay estranged for long, and the poignant fun of "The Best of Times" comes in the stuttering scenes betwen the couples, scenes that have nothing to do with the Big Game -- a moment when Reno, trying to ingratiate himself with his wife, warbles "Close to You," off-key, through the motel room door; a delicately timed farce in which the boys come over for dinner and try to discuss world affairs, and ignore "Monday Night Football."
"The Best of Times" isn't helped by the camera work of Charles Wheeler, an old-time cinematographer ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre") whose lighting flattens out the image; the sound is poor, so the actors have to shout. Throughout, the acting is bigger than it has to be, particularly in the case of Williams. Williams is a dazzling verbal comedian and an expert mimic (there's a fine scene here where he paints a picture of Reno's former glory with sound effects); physically, he has a limberness you usually expect from cartoons. His wordplay is based on quick shifts in direction -- the verbal equivalent of Brownian movement -- and when he's in a groove, he's able to do a similar thing with his expressions: The changes in his face blend into a chord.
But here, Williams is broader, brassier, less confident than he's been before, and also less inventive. In a way, it's the loudest withdrawn performance you could imagine. Russell is equally broad and even less interesting. He's curiously hidden as an actor, wholly dependent on a role to provide his colors. Pamela Reed, with her blunt nose and wounded saucer eyes, provides the ensemble's only notes of subtlety.
"The Best of Times" has its touches of cleverness (Reno paints "Starry Night" on an Econoline and titles it "Van . . . Go!"), but what it really resembles, more than anything, is a teen comedy populated by adults. Which isn't surprising. Beneath the surface, going back to high school as an adult is what all those teen comedies are about.
The Best of Times, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity and mild sexual situations.