Sportsflicks: "Dreamer", or a Less Ambitious "Breaking Away" About Bowling

"Dreamer": The Music Box Dancer of sports movies. The Breaking Away of bowling movies. The Kingpin of unironic b-sports movies.
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Bowling is a part of American culture, but it’s not a very large part. Both Kingpin and The Big Lebowski are canon, and bowling plays a key part in the climax of There Will Be Blood (which spoiler alert: there is indeed blood). But who looks back at the TV show “Ed” with any fondness, or rewatches the documentary The League Of Ordinary Gentleman to do anything but scowl at Bernard Goldberg’s coded “Americans hate bowlers, ie blue collar white men” talk? Even bowling is more fun than that. And yet there is indeed a movie from the late 1970’s that captures both the essence of bowling and the malaise enveloping Middle America at the time.

Dreamer is either a Kingpin that plays it straight, or a much less ambitious Breaking Away . It’s pretty much the “Music Box Dancer” of sports movies, in that it is simultaneously slow and energetic, at once traditional and danceable, the combination of which could only have thrived just before Morning In America. Dreamer is an hour and a half long but feels incomplete, and I can only hope neither the Fox Movie Channel (which aired it years ago) nor the person who uploaded [a VHS recording from Fox Movie Channel] on to YouTube left any of the good parts out of Dreamer . There are indeed good parts in Dreamer , but they are good to the extent that they are memorable.

Tim Matheson is Harold Nuttingham, the titular “Dreamer,” by nickname and by disposition. He works at the local alley and dreams of becoming a professional bowler, perhaps maybe setting up an alley of his own for father figure and pro shop owner Jack Warden to run. Much like this hypothetical bowling alley, Harold’s dreams have a low ceiling. Dreamer wins some regional tournament, and hopes it’s enough for the Professional Bowlers Association to allow him into their cadre. When he realizes that a.) he needs to bowl a consistent average in league play and 2.) Alton, Illinois is too sad a town to field a league, Dreamer Harold marches down with his lover (played by the incomparable Susan Blakely) to St. Louis, to give The Best Fans In Bowling a piece of their mind.

Dreamer does indeed get on the Pro Bowlers Tour, and wins a slightly larger tournament, akin to the Odor Eaters Classic Roy Munson wins in Kingpin . That said, he leaves the Mississippi River valley without the dead wife from Over The Top and comes back without the star of TV’s “Crazy Like A Fox.” After an argument with Ms. Blakely, Warden commits suicide by bowling, in that he decides to channel his stress by exerting his already strained heart, and was obviously too depressed for sex. Matheson reconciles with Blakely, who finishes a sweet-ass satin shirt she made for him, and they go to Chicago for the PBA Championship, which our hero obviously wins by using the magical bowling ball Jack Warden was going to give him before he bowled himself to death.

The makers of Dreamer don’t really emphasize this fact as much as they should have.

***

For all the pretenses of a ho-hum sports drama, Dreamer shows some life around its edges. The Mexican pinsetters (one of whom is “You Bet Your Life” contestant and John Wayne stock company member Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) are used as comic relief, which didn’t really work in 1979 and certainly doesn’t work in 2015. Richard B. Shull and Matt Clark are good in their roles as the bowling alley proprietor and the local skeeve, respectively. Azizi Johari, the model of the NSFW poster adorning Scatman Crothers’ apartment in The Shining , also has a small role. One JoBe Cerny is the bowlocrat who initially denies Dreamer a shot, an-- HOLY SHIT HE’S THE GUY IN THE “CHEER” ADS, AND THE VOICE OF THE FUCKING PILLSBURY DOUGHBOY !!!

The world of bowling, as it was in 1979, was present in Dreamer , with legendary bowler Dick Weber as Harold’s childhood idol and final boss, Johnny Watkin. Chris Schenkel and Norman Burton, Jr., the Buck and Aikman of bowling, call the championship, with Burton spouting some bullshit that Dreamer is adding a new dimension to the sport of bowling. Burton does not go into what that second dimension might be, unless he just really likes that satin shirt.

Most of Dreamer was filmed in and around Alton, Illinois, a Mississippi River town just north of St. Louis. It is a town of contrasts, as the birthplace of both Miles Davis and James Earl Ray, and the hometown of the tallest person in recorded history, Robert Ladlow, and conservative matriarch Phyllis Schlafly. Alton also films well, and Dreamer is a nice time capsule of the city before the Flood of 1993 and the later introduction of casino gaming.

The whole process of finding movies to watch for this column isn’t very sexy, but this particular column was borne of the handsome face of Paul Rudd, and how in 2015 Rudd looks exactly like Tim Matheson did when the latter played Alan Stanwyck in Fletch . In search of a deep cut I remembered Dreamer which I watched six or seven years ago, found it on YouTube , and here we are. It’s surprising what showing the trailer of a Carter-era bowling movie does to some people. I got quite a few responses from my followers, including a really good riff on the tagline which I desperately wanted to steal and use as my own. @dontbeabrick on Twitter wins the Sportsflicks home version, which is just a DVD of Reggie’s Prayer and a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi ONE; I hope he enjoys them.

Dreamer is at once a halfassed attempt to get the Baby Boomer generation back into tenpin bowling and a decent movie in and of itself. No one exactly wants to watch a bowling movie, especially one played straight, but if there’s absolutely nothing else to watch, you could do worse, like actually bowl. It doesn’t strike every time, but has just enough charm to pick up the spare.


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