United We Fall (2014): A Draw that Feels like a Loss

As viewers, we sort of expect that a mockumentary will play out, as Bob Balaban has described, like “spending time with a bunch of really funny and totally harmless mental patients.” Christopher Guest set a very high bar for mockumentary, and I have no doubt that, when Writer-Director Gary Sinyor outlined his plan for United We Fall, he hoped his comedy would reach similar heights of hilarity.

So I was nonplussed that United We Fall received some of the most brutal football movie reviews I have ever seen from British newspapers. Having just come off an endorphin high from watching Free Solo, my husband and I were equally dismissive of Sinyor’s faux documentary.

But when I read the reviews, I really questioned why I ended up feeling so down after Sinyor’s parody. The performances are actually pretty amazing, I liked most of the characters, and many of the lines were quite funny. But reviews flamed the soccer comedy as sexist, racist, and homophobic.

So I did something I’ve never done with a film that I didn’t like: I watched it again. 

In the story, United We Fall follows up with 5 former ManU players four years after their disastrous 2010 season. They had failed to win the Treble, losing the league championship, the FA Cup, and the Champions League in 3 successive games at the end of the season. In individual interviews, each player recounts his perspective on the losses, his teammates, and his life before, during, and after ManU. In the last 15-20 minutes of the film, the players and their WAGs have a reunion dinner where honest hostilities boil over and are somewhat resolved.

United We Fall was Unscripted

Sinyor got the idea for the film after working on the ManU documentary The Class of 92. Although it may be telling that he is a ManCity fan, his concept was to parody what would have happened to a ManU team that had failed to accomplish anything. He decided to film unscripted and completely improvised. He recruited actors, some of whom specialize in improv theater, and as a group they worked out the players’ backstory.

The film was shot over 6 days, each actor spending a full day, sometimes in his own home, being mock-interviewed and improvising his answers. The dinner scene was shot on the last day of filming. Separately, the interview of a corrupt unofficial FIFA ambassador and a music video were shot on a yacht in Spain.

Sinyor’s method sounds quite similar to Christopher Guest’s creative process (see my review of Mascots). I also found a basic article with tips on unscripted filmmaking and improvised cinema. So where did this soccer movie lose its audience?

Where it went wrong

Watching the mockumentary a second time, with the knowledge that it was an improv, I still wasn’t sure why the end result is like a draw that feels like a loss. Or maybe it’s more like a loss that feels like Brazil vs Germany… No, it’s not Brazil-bad; it’s not going to incite people to topple British moviemaking. But coming from the land of Monty Python, why does the result feel so wrong?

My theory is that some of the topics are simply not ones you can joke about today. Perhaps the depicted situations are too close to real life, or are too problematic in real life.

For example, it’s not funny when an African footballer converts to Islam and has his British blonde wife wear a black burqua. It’s almost believable that a player might decide to come out by celebrating a goal with an “out and proud”  undershirt. But rather unbelievably, the team prankster has switched the gay player’s Proud undershirt to one with a graphic male organ. Judge that scene for yourself (Warning: it has the graphic) by watching Ryan Pope’s video snippet on his centerback’s plan to come out during a game.

And then, there’s the aftermath to coming out, where fans chant “He’s hard he’s fast he takes it up the a**”. In addition, I personally had a problem with the gratuitous female nudity during the corrupt FIFA ambassador segments. 

The other major downside of the film is the group dinner scene. Somehow it just doesn’t work and is a bit painful. It’s really a shame, because the performances up until that part are really enjoyable. I found it interesting that the actors could describe football plays so well that I could envision every game gaff without their having to film any soccer action. That’s real storytelling.

I also enjoyed Matthew Avery’s music video “Jump for Ghana”, although to be sure, I found his bit funnier when he did it while sitting on a couch during his interview.

There’s very little soccer in the film, although Jack Donnelly gives a precious demonstration on how to fake an injury for the cameras. 

In English

5 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 5