Sportsflicks: "The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon," or The Tony Danza Playbook

In which Tony Danza takes on the role of a lifetime: a placekicking Philadelphia garbage man who is NOT NAMED TONY.
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It’s tough to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan in 2015, especially when you don’t know whether winning is worth the dysfunction, or the risk of perpetual mediocrity. The Eagles are now 4-6— and transparently just itching to make it 4-7 against Detroit on Thanksgiving—but have lost three of these games by three points or fewer. In two of these losses, to the Washington Football Team and the Dolphins, Caleb Sturgis missed field goals and extra point attempts which would have made the difference. This is frustrating, but I have to admire Sturgis for keeping a fundamentally flawed team honest; he did not let the Eagles off the hook for their inherent shittiness, and if this is not exactly his job, or is more accurately the opposite of his job, it is at least a principled stance.

The same could not be said about one of the greatest kickers in Philadelphia Eagles history, one who makes David Akers look like Jose Cortez, and Luis Zendejas look like Max Zendejas. Of course I’m talking about Tony Danza.

The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon is a TV movie from 1998, but also it is so much more than a movie about a sanitation worker who kicks extra points and also lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania. That is (spoiler) what the movie’s about, but it is not the whole of it. Unwieldy “Marat/Sade”-esque title aside, TGPFGKPP was a rare high point for Eagles fans in an era when Bobby Hoying was the quarterback of the future, and coach Ray Rhodes pioneered the avant-garde comparison of losing a football game to seeing your entire family sodomized.

It’s not an era anyone looks back on fondly, in other words, and while I was barely awake when my VHS copy arrived from Amazon, I looked forward to watching “The Shit Kicking Nose Picking Minneapolis Menomena” and revisiting those dark times. After I had my caffeine fix I settled in to enjoy a much different, but still bizarre film.  

Antonio Salvatore Iadanza is Barney Gorman, the titular garbage picking etc., etc,. It’s too easy to make the joke that playing someone not named Tony was a stretch for Danza, but he mugs his way through the role with such ease that you can’t help but suspect that no one told him the character was not named Tony. Not-Tony is proud of his work, but knows it embarrasses his son and father. He is ready to move on, especially after a career day where he produces a rat to impress the children at his son’s school and is nearly fired for finishing his work late. If Tony Danza ever was the boss, this moment was not it.

Gorman vents his anger by kicking Sparkletts water bottles with the same foot he uses to kick the hydraulics on Ethel, his trusty garbage truck/problematic symbolism. All this attracts the attention of Eagles management, who are scouting the landfill for the site of their new stadium, and totally not for a place to dispose of the general manager’s body. The owner and his sexy but non-threatening assistant sign Barney after a high-larious tryout, making Tony Danza the Vince Papale of freakishly strong right legs, and a working-class hero to all of Southern Ontario Pretending To Be Philadelphia.

But while Danza is a good kicker, that doesn’t mean he’s a Happy Feller. Gorman struggles at first, then succeeds wildly, then pisses everyone off, then redeems himself. Barney doesn’t become a dick, but has dickishness thrust upon him—sub-Sturgis doucheries like bailing on yet another career day—all in the service of being a NFL kicker. The backlash begins when Barney starts to miss field goals from distances that would test even Sebastian Janikowski’s stately gams. Between the second and third acts, this family comedy becomes straight up torture porn.  Not-Tony gets released by the team and separates from his wife after Deadspin But A Newspaper Because It’s 1998 catches him being kissed by some random lady, and is only welcomed back onto his team and into his marriage because it is literally Christmas.

The all-important final game is against the Dallas Cowboys, naturally; a win will save Coach’s job, although the fact that a win would likely cost the team the chance to draft Donovan McNabb goes unmentioned. We know it’s important because Chris Berman is doing the play-by-play, having already made a stupid “Barney Rubble” joke earlier in the movie. In a testament to the film’s scrupulous dedication to realism, the fake Eagles quarterback throws the ball in broad daylight, and actual Eagles WR Mark Seay—a football Job in his own right—catches it in the middle of the night. Anyway, the reception stands.

Barney rallies the team from the bench until the kicker who is carrying the Eagles on his back gets injured after our hero head-butts him. Tony Danza delivers in the clutch, both as an ancillary special teams player and as an actor whose stupid-ass grin makes you laugh at the absurdity of the whole fucking thing. The Eagles win, heroically draft Akili Smith, and win four Super Bowls under Bruce Coslet, all thanks to Disney Magic.

Ray Wise plays new owner Randolph Pratt; a Ray Wiser name there has never been. He talks about the stadium he wants to build (in the form of a model of the SkyDome) to replace the shitty stadium in which they currently play, and vague threats of moving to Los Angeluhrr abound. I’m pretty sure they filmed that one scene in Toronto and every other football scene at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium because they wouldn’t allow the model of SkyDome outside the premises. Wise should have just consulted Random Extra In A Canadian Tuxedo/Oscar-winning producer/actual Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who later built Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and gave Philly fans a chance to be discouraged and disappointed in ways they’d never dared dream. Also he produced V.I. Warshawski.

TGPFGKPP and Invincible have a lot in common, even beyond Disney’s involvement in both and both plots hinging on the Rocky-ish story of an ethnic white Philadelphian joining the Iggles. Both Tony Danza and Mark Wahlberg use what limited range they have to their advantage, and each have been in other lousy movies vaguely having to do with Philadelphia. There is a lot of early Disney synergy, though it is exactly as clumsy as you would expect; the Channel 6 shout-out is nice, though.

Mike Vanderjagt’s luscious legs double for Danza’s—the pride of Oakville, Ontario and the shame of Marco Island, Florida does his job while wobbly ball noises are added in post. It adds to the Golden Horseshoe-as-the-Delaware Valley vibe of the movie. Frankly, the only way you’d know the difference between Philadelphia and Toronto would be to mention Joe Carter at a local bar, and TGPFGKPP leans heavily on the assumption that American football fans won’t notice that the film is shot in CFL territory.

This alternate universe Eagles team is dumb enough both to keep two kickers on the roster at once, and to employ a coach who is the equivalent of the Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes and Andy Reid eras combined. Art LaFleur has that role, and is a great character actor who’s been in a bunch of memorable sports movies; he’s good here as the fedora-ed Gus Rogenheimer, and his charisma is, at the risk of overstatement, significantly beyond that of Rich Kotite.

Jessica Tuck, who once played Nicole Brown Simpson on a TV movie, has better luck playing a football star’s wife here. The late Jaime Cardriche scores points as Danza’s biggest ally on the team, while Fred Stoller is fine as his fellow garbageman. Al Ruscio is pretty much Robert De Niro in The Silver Linings Playbook, albeit with the added burden of having Tony Danza for his disappointing son instead of the delightful and whimsically bipoplar Bradley Cooper.

The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon is a mouthful to say and a handful to watch. For a movie that is literally about a fucking garbage man who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, a lot of it sounds implausible. TGPFGKPP’s explicit lesson—to follow your dreams but not be an ass about it—is a good one to hear, even though the real lesson here is to learn your place and not try to flaunt your talents to begin with, and also fuck the Cowboys. The best way to approach the film is to do as Tony Danza does, as is so often the case in life. Feel free to make a bunch of stupid, overstated facial expressions as you say “It’s only a game,” and smile as needed. You won’t be wrong. You might even enjoy yourself.

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