Nice to look at, terribly high-minded (albeit with an elementary-school-level view of the world), decently acted — and just about the dullest thing you can imagine — The Basket is first-time director Rich Cowan’s attempt to revive the “inspirational family film.” The problem with such attempts stems from the basically dubious concept of “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” What is so completely overlooked in this wrongheaded approach is the fact that what made and makes the great classics of film — family and otherwise — is that they were the work of filmmakers very deliberately not making “’em like they used to.” The Basket takes this concept and renders it that much worse by trying to make a statement. The results are a TV movie inflated to the size of The Big Screen, padded with cliches and featuring one sentence’s worth of moralizing point. Despite solid performances and name (albeit not “star”) actors such Peter Coyote (Erin Brokovich) and Karen Allen (Falling Sky), there’s precious little in this independently distributed (read: no studio wanted it) opus to involve or tax the viewer, beyond the unusual setting of rural Washington state and the era: the last days of World War I. Actually, the second is the one rather interesting aspect of the film, since it is very easy to forget — or never have known — how thoroughly dehumanized the Germans were by the United States propaganda machine of the time. The film’s recreation of that — and the resultant anti-German sentiment –is quite good, but it’s hardly enough to justify sitting through the moth-infested plot that centers on the prejudices faced by two German war orphans in this rural setting. The setting, in fact, works against the impact of the anti-German bias, because the more insular factions of the community aren’t all that much more thrilled by the presence of Peter Coyote’s imported Bostonian teacher (but then they are perhaps disconcerted by the fact that Coyote talks like a cross between a Kennedy and the Pepperidge Farm cookie salesman). The plot basically revolves around the war orphans and Coyote proving themselves to the locals. That they do so will come as no surprise to anyone, especially in a film that is so determinedly “uplifting.” That most of this is accomplished through basketball is equally non-startling, given the title. Then again, the whole film has a penchant for being allegorical. Not content with the basketball allegory, the point of the film is made over again via a truly clumsy plot device that has Coyote teaching his students about music with a specially created (and perfectly awful) opera called The Basket which just happens to have a story line that fits that of the action of the film. This is what is known as clever scripting, I think. Whatever it is, it doesn’t manage to make for good film. In fact, the film doesn’t manage not to be a feeble reactionary exercise in sappiness. To borrow a concept from Groucho Marx, this thing really needs to bore a hole in itself and let the sap run out. As it stands, it’s more likely to bore the viewer.
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