‘The Beautiful Game’ gets by on good vibes

Spirit goes a long way in “The Beautiful Game.”

Releasing March 29 on Netflix, the sports comedy-drama shines a light on the Homeless World Cup, an annual event in which, yes, homeless male and female footballers — soccer players to us — play for their countries in matches of four-on-four “street” soccer, which is played on a smaller field, er, pitch.

Made with the support of the event’s namesake organization and said to be inspired by true stories, “The Beautiful Game” focuses mainly on fellas comprising the English club and their coach, a former professional star player.

The direction by the suddenly busy Thea Sharrock — her film “Wicked Little Letters” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and lands in theaters next week — and screenplay by Frank Cottrell-Boyce leave a lot to be desired.

The film has the flow of a match where neither team manages more than a few scoring opportunities, but it does eke out a win.

The ever-enjoyable Bill Nighy (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Living”) stars as the aforementioned player-turned-coach, Mal, who also spent time as a scout for a pro club. When we meet him, he is hunting for big game — former pro Vinny (Micheal Ward), who has been living out of his car for a stretch as he’s struggled to find steady work.
Mal explains to Vinny that he’s been involved with the Homeless World Cup for years and that he’s set to take his 12th team to the tournament, which this year is in Rome.

“You ever won it?” Vinny asks.

“It’s not about winning,” Mal says.

“You’re desperate to win it.”

“Well, I wouldn’t object.”

Mal tells him that every player at the tournament has a story to tell — “heartbreaking, unexpected, thrilling stories” — and seems to want Vinny to take part in the Homeless World Cup for reasons that go beyond the fact he clearly would be the team’s best player.

Vinny is the prideful type and initially rebuffs Mal, but perhaps eager to impress the young daughter he visits at a playground who’s being raised by his ex, he agrees to go.

With the possible exception of the team’s existing striker, Cal (Kit Young), the players warmly welcome Vinny into their supportive dynamic, but he chooses to keep his distance, even once they’re all in Rome and competing. He does provide some much-needed scoring punch, unabashedly installing a “pass it to me” core team strategy.
It isn’t the fault of Ward (“Empire of Light,” “The Old Guard”) that it’s so hard to warm to Vinny, as Sharrock, whose credits also include the controversial 2016 tearjerker “Me Before You,” and Cottrell-Boyce, perhaps best known for TV writing, fly too close to the sun with his character arc. Vinny simply is too hard to like for too long.

As a result, we wish “The Beautiful Game” gave us more time with Nighy’s Mal, who habitually talks to his beloved late wife. Still, there seems to be a little chemistry between him and Gabriella (Valeria Golino of “Rain Man” fame), who helps run the event and talks a little trash on behalf of her host Italian squad. it feels like a missed opportunity not to make more out of, um, “Mal-riella,” if we may be so bold, than the movie does.

“The Beautiful Game” includes mini-subplots involving the English players, the closest to impactful of which involves Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), a recovering heroin addict who tries hard to connect with his cold roommate, Vinny.

Thinking “Ted Lasso” crossed with “Next Goal Wins” gets you in the ballpark as to what “The Beautiful Game” has to offer, although it’s not as strong as either the Apple TV+ hit or the 2023 film from writer-director Taika Waititi, respectively.

Despite all its fumbling about, “The Beautiful Game” succeeds as a celebration of the Homeless World Cup, championing not only what the experience means for those who participate in it but also its power to inspire others around the world./Tribune News Service


Rated PG-13, On Netflix

Grade: B-


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