THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
There are sections of America where people love football almost as much as they love Jesus. That likely accounts for the number of faith-based films revolving around the sport: Facing the Giants, Woodlawn, My All-American, When the Game Stands Tall, and The 5th Quarter are just a few of them. Now comes Greater, which tells the true story of “the greatest walk-on in the history of college football.” It's a movie that has some undeniable inspirational appeal, but also one that's so sluggishly told that the appeal is moderately blunted.
Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) is a young Christian who has dreamed of playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks from the time he was a child. Flashbacks show the overweight Brandon being relentlessly mocked for his size and told that his dream is impossible. Even his much-older brother Marty (Neal McDonough) thinks it can't happen. The only one who believes in him is his mother Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook). (Absentee father Leo, played by Michael Parks, is too drunk to weigh in much.) Greater follows Brandon as he defies all odds, first getting named a walk-on player for the Razorbacks, then getting a scholarship, then finally becoming a full-fledged team player.
Since it's revealed in the opening scene – and since a fair number of audience members know it anyway – it's no spoiler to say that Brandon Burlsworth died in a car accident. The movie depicts Marty's crisis of faith over this tragedy by having him talk to a pessimistic stranger (Nick Searcy) outside of his brother's funeral. The man asks all the troubling questions Marty has inside his head, specifically Why do bad things happen to good people? and If there's a God, why did He let this occur?
There's no doubt that Brandon had a terrific personal story about the importance of ignoring “the odds” when pursuing a dream. Through faith and iron-willed determination, he accomplished the things everyone told him he would never be able to do. Greater really gets across the idea that having faith in a higher power also means having faith in oneself. After all, the film seems to say, if God provided you with gifts, it's because He wants you to use them.
Strong performances are a real highlight. Neal McDonough skillfully conveys Marty's struggle to come to terms with personal tragedy. The actor expresses how his character has his faith rocked by Brandon's death, right at the moment when the big dream was set to go to the next level. Severio is very good, too, showing how Brandon's belief in God helps him to ignore – or constructively use – the negativity thrown at him by so many.
Director/co-writer David Hunt invests Greater with real sincerity and warmth. There are many individual moments that tug on your heartstrings or touch your emotions. But he has real trouble telling the story efficiently. At 130 minutes, the movie often feels like it's playing in slow motion. Scenes drag on well past the point where we comprehend the information intended to be imparted. Other scenes are just filler and could have been cut with no discernible effect. Greater would have packed a far greater punch had it been tightened into a leaner package. It's hard to be fully moved when you're growing impatient with the slow pace.
Thin characters are a little frustrating, as well. Like many faith-based films, Greater gives everyone one specific note to play in order to deliver the intended message. Brandon, for example, never has a single moment of genuine insecurity about his destiny. That's admirable, but also unrealistic and kind of uninteresting. Why not give him a few darker shades? Leo, meanwhile, is a stereotypical worthless drunk, Barbara is the never-doubting mother, and many of the supporting characters are cliched jerks – i.e. obstacles – here to say and do cruel things so we understand how much Brandon has to overcome.
In the end, Greater is better than many films of its type, thanks to the skilled cast, decent production values, and generally non-melodramatic delivery of its religious message. But it also plods along much more than it should, painting a lot of the individuals who populate the story in a single color. This is not a bad tribute to Brandon Burlsworth, just one that goes on too long and oversimplifies things too much to make for really impactful drama.
( 1/2 out of four)
Greater is rated PG for thematic elements, some language and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!