MOVIE REVIEW: The 5th Quarter. PG-13.
OK, I don't want to seem like the bad guy who disses a good-hearted movie. The 5th Quarter is a case study in teamwork and courage in college football. It's an inspirational story of a family overcoming grief, of good coming out of tragedy. And it's a gentle commercial for organ donation.
Wonderful aims, all of them. But they're set forth in such heavy-handed manner, the film gets in its own way.
It starts extremely slowly, with tame sequences establishing the Abbate family as close and loving. The three sons trade so many hugs and smiles and even kisses with parents Maryanne (Andie MacDowell) and Steven (Aidan Quinn), even Norman Rockwell would blush.
All that is a setup for the death of son Luke, who dies at 15 after he accepts a ride with a drunken classmate. The death sends the family into grief that is tested further by Luke's stated wish for his organs to be harvested and donated.
After the funeral, the family begins to unravel: Maryanne sinking into depression, Steven throwing himself into business, Jon hitting the bottle. Jon's football coach at Wake Forest University urges him to practice with them, but his heart isn't into it. He finally agrees to work with a private trainer.
Jon finally returns to Wake Forest and asks to play wearing his brother's Number 5 jersey. He emerges as a spiritual leader for the team just where they need it -- in the ratings cellar of their football conference. His new drive and maturity prove infectious, and their season hits a winning streak.
Steven and Maryanne, too, pick up the spirit of honoring Luke's memory, attending games and trading salutes with Jon on the field: a raised hand with fingers splayed, for the five people whom Luke's organs benefited. The rest of the crowd takes up the gesture, forming a forest of raised hands.
Aidan Quinn is a veteran actor of 45 feature films including Avalon, The Assignment and Legends of the Fall. In this one, though, he chews the scenery as Steven Abbate. At Luke's funeral, Steven waves away the pallbearers and pushes his son's casket out himself, weeping loudly all the way. Steven later praises Jon's maturity in about five sentences more than he needs. And when he gets a visit from a woman who received Luke's heart, Steven actually presses his ear to her chest, crying as he listens to the heartbeat.
Quinn's over-acting, though, may be at the behest of writer-director-producer Rick Bieber. MacDowell, best known for her roles in Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral, turns in a smooth, nuanced role as Maryanne, from the warm and doting wife to the troubled, bereaved mother.
But much of the film belongs to Ryan Merriman as Jon. Already a veteran actor at 27 -- with such credits as The Ring 2, Final Destination 3 and the TV show Pretty Little Liars -- Merriman is credible in each phase of Jon's development: slightly randy college student, drunken rebel, athlete fighting back to fitness, spiritual anchor for both team and family.
Religious content is kept light but constant. Characters cite Bible verses in speeches and other public comments, more as spiritual atmosphere than to teach. They pray for God not to help them win, but simply to help them play their best. It's a refreshing change from the cynical attitude in many films toward anything religious.
If only the rest of The 5th Quarter were that subtle. Did Bieber have to lay a moody pop or folk jingle over nearly every scene that didn't have dialogue? There are enough songs to fill an album -- and in fact, they're selling one, on iTunes. Still, at least one, Live and Breathe by Stacy Earl, is an evocative song.
And Bieber didn't forget the theme of his film. Its website provides a link to the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation. The site is meant to warn parents and teenagers about the dangers of drunk driving. It also urges the value of organ donations, as Luke donated his.
There's also a link to DonateLife.net, which promotes the same cause.