The late Joel Schumacher apparently phoned up Woody Allen after being wounded by the critical obloquy for one of his Batman films ‘I fear I’ve made the worst movie ever,’ the director confessed, only to elicit the reply ‘No, making the worst movie ever would take real talent.’ Schumacher actually did have real talent, but Allen’s response is correct; to make something truly terrible, you have to arouse expectations of something good.
If an eclectic pop-culture maven like Tarantino announced his next cast would feature Sam Neill, Tim Roth, Gerald Depardieu, Fisher Stevens and Thomas Kretschmann, expectations would be high. But when the same cast is assembled for an expensive advert for a corrupt football body trying to portray itself in an unlikely but positive light, the stars align for bad movie heaven.
Of course, everyone hates FIFA, the world football organisation, some for sporting reasons, some for financial motivations, but the knives were certainly out for this film. Could there be a secret Chariots of Fire success lurking there, dismissed by critics but adored by sports fans? It’s hard to see what French tv director Frederic Auburtin thought United Passions could be, but if it had succeeded, it would have been a film like no other. With the main character dying around the 40 minute mark, with laughable CGI that would shame a PS2 game, with the focus on executive votes and a shonky view of history that ignores world wars and dictatorship, but gets misty eyed about unjust football victories, there’s nothing in this list of ingredients that even promises to gel.
First to stick his head in the stocks is Depardieu as Jules Rimet. Dressed like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, he cuts a mirth-inducing figure as he mumbles through sludgy dialogue about administration, with scenes usually ending with a banal platitude like’ Yes, football is a man’s game.’ Even a little of this kind of thing is too much, so it’s something of a relief when Sam Neill turns up as Joao Havelange, passing the baton onto Seth Blatter, played in a career worst performance by Tim Roth. Perhaps seeking to avoid identification, Roth plays Blatter like Peter Lorre imitating Jerry Lewis, and his fight to cleans the game of corruption is realised through an uninspiring series of blandly anonymous scenes of old white men voting. It’s pure cinematic gibberish; a scene of Blatter mourning a friend, with a coffin in close up, is inexplicably accompanied by Talking Heads’ jaunty anthem Wild Wild Life and the words “I’m tickling your fancy.’
But it’s the dialogue, seemingly run through google translate, which consistently floors the viewer. In the 1930’s, the length of the Depression is upsetting Rimet; ‘Will this Depression never end?’ he asks. His wife consoles him with the wise words ‘Your federation is a fine thing.’ Meanwhile the eye is drawn to British actors like Anthony Higgins (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Martin Jarvis, both of whom seem, like the cast, to be emulating FIFA executives and super-market-sweeping as much cash up as possible.
An own-goal of the highest order, United Passions is a vanity project on the rocks, a self-regarding monument of lies, built from lies, by liars, for liars. As always, an untruth allows the guilty to kick the can further along the road, but the painful truth will always out eventually, and United Passions is a cinematic own goal of epic proportions.