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SUNSET PARK. Directed by Steve Gomer; written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and Kathleen McGhee-Anderson; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Dan Paulson for TriStar. Starring Rhea Perlman, Fredro Starr and Terrence Dashon Howard. Rated R.


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It's hard to dislike a movie populated with such appealing characters, but when it's as big a muddle as Sunset Park is, you really don't have any choice.

The scriptwriters couldn't seem to decide whether to focus their story on or off the basketball court. And as a result, we don't get enough of either to make the movie work.

Another problem with the script is that it relies almost exclusively on sports movie cliches for its inspiration. I'm sure you know the ones I mean. Green coach tries to mold rebellious youngsters (coach and kids are of different races, naturally, and genders, too, for good measure) and give them the sense of purpose needed to win. Kids gradually come to respect coach, learn to play together as team, get to big game, etc., etc., etc.

Here the coach is Phyllis (Perlman) a girls' P.E. teacher with a remarkable lack of basketball knowledge, who takes on coaching the boys' varsity because it pays better and no one else wanted the job. One departure from the usual formula is apparent early, as the boys aren't the usual untalented slackers needing a coach to teach them the importance of "fundamentals." They're actually pretty good, just unfocused.

It's the team that has to bring the coach up to speed here, rather than the reverse.

The boys are fun to watch, both on the court and off, especially after you get to know them. And I like the relationship that Phyllis develops with them.

There's a good scene in which she assures her best player that he doesn't need to showboat to impress the girls watching. They would be impressed with him even if he didn't score a point. "I'm a girl," she says, "I know." And another where she advises Shorty (Starr) about giving a poem to a girl he likes.

But the story is SO familiar, having been done, almost the same way, SO many times before, that it's just hard to get excited about it again. Even when, at the end, Sunset Park does depart from the formula for a more realistic, and interesting, ending.

If it were possible to make such an over-used storyline exciting again, it would need to be a better-put-together movie than this one.

May 8, 1996

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