Super Bowl 2011: Your Guide to Movies About Football and Texas

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Universal Studios

Scores of expensive commercials will premiere in one four-hour period on Sunday evening, with regular interruptions for some kind of athletic contest. Those looking for insight into the sport in question might do well to browse the rental racks—in addition to the stat columns and the snack-food aisles—ahead of this weekend's game.

Perhaps due to the difficulty of choreographing believable gridiron action, and the problem of managing a massive roster of characters, football has not been represented on-screen as frequently or as memorably as, say, boxing. That said, the last century has given us classics worthy of the National Film Registry (The Freshman, Knute Rockne, All American), effective male weepies (Brian's Song, Rudy, Remember the Titans), comedies of variable degrees of stupidity (Heaven Can Wait, The Waterboy, the two versions of The Longest Yard), and a lately burgeoning subgenre of amateur-football sagas set in the Lone Star State (Necessary Roughness, Varsity Blues, and, most notably, Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights). The one-time republic, wherein lies Cowboys Stadium, the site of this year's Super Bowl, would seem to offer a limitless supply of small towns filled with colorful characters—roughneck burnouts and golden-boy local heroes alike—who all live and die by high school football.

Films about aspirations to professional football appear to be more common than films about actual pro ball. But there a number of NFL-themed films worth renting or cuing up "instantly" on Netflix ahead of Super Bowl Sunday—and the best of them just so happens to take place in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. North Dallas Forty (1979), directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) and adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, gets an extra Super Bowl XLV relevance point for incorporating a critique of the swaggering don't-mess-with-Texas ethos. Football is serious business for the North Dallas Bulls, a facsimile of America's Team. But management's increasing fondness for computer stat-crunching seems to have occasioned a corresponding decrease in personal regard for their players' well-being.

The drama, very '70s in its proud brashness and its general air of disillusionment, imagines the game of football as corporal punishment—the main character, a wide receiver named Phil Elliott (the incomparable Nick Nolte), spends the movie limping around and cracking wise—and the players as expert substance abusers. They are aided and abetted in their pill-popping by team brass—when it's convenient, that is. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison's comments this week about team owners privileging profits over player safety might well serve as an on-the-nose epigraph for North Dallas Forty.

The underrated 2009 film Big Fan, written and directed by Wrestler scribe and former Onion editor Robert Siegel, views professional football from outside rather than in-. Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 36-year-old Staten Island parking-lot attendant who lives with his mother, is the most rabid fictional Giants fan since Frederick Exley of A Fan's Notes. While eating a slice of pizza one night, Paul spies Giants defenseman Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at the gas station across the way. Paul trails his hero to a Midtown Manhattan strip club, where Bishop winds up beating his biggest fan to a pulp. The fate of Bishop, and the Giants' season, suddenly rests in Paul's hands, touching off an internal struggle that's intensified by family pressures as well as the taunts of "Philadelphia Phil" (Michael Rapaport), Paul's nemesis on the late-night "Sports Dogg" radio program.

Big Fan brims with dark humor and cringe-inducing humiliations, but its saddest joke is that while Paul loves the Giants, he's not enough of a revenue stream for them to love him back. Presumably unable to buy tickets, Paul and his friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) tailgate outside the Meadowlands on game days; the two must pay a $20 cover and empty their wallets on a pair of $9 Bud Lights just for the privilege of being in the same room as an NFL star. To his credit, though, Siegel reveals the fabled football squad as a more complex component of Paul's self-identity than this theme of price-gouging might suggest.

Paper Lion (1968), adapted from a book by the late George Plimpton, makes a nice antidote to films like North Dallas Forty and Big Fan, in which the heedless pursuit of end-zone glory winds up putting the protagonists' very lives at stake. On assignment from Sports Illustrated, Plimpton (Alan Alda) tries out for last-string QB of the Detroit Lions. Director Alex March's film, with its breezy jazz score, is essentially a comedy of training-camp mores, as the scrawny, affably hubristic writer finds himself on the receiving end of many elaborate pranks by players.

The uneven but appealingly genial Paper Lion, which parodies at a few points the overblown slo-mo dramatics that are the stock-in-trade of NFL Films, establishes football as a job—and a hard one at that. Today's version of pro pigskin might seem considerably more souped-up (and less innocent) than the one on display in Paper Lion. But especially amid all the Super Bowl hoopla, it's all too easy to forget that the players on the field now are also just plying their peculiar trade.