Sunset Park

on April 26, 1996 by Carole Glines
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   In "Sunset Park," one white female coach changes the lives of a team of black male teenage basketball players in a single season. Sound condescending? Well, that's hardly all of the do-gooder sentiment that mars this Bad News Bears in the 'Hood tale. The filmmakers are so intent on conveying their liberal social consciousness that they create a laughably unrealistic story.
   Rhea Perlman (wife of producer Danny DeVito) stars as Phyllis Saroka, a teacher at a rundown inner-city Brooklyn high school who must take on the challenge of becoming a basketball coach. She has a hard road ahead of her, dealing with such players as star athlete Shorty (Fredro Starr), misdirected Busy-Bee (De'Aundre Bonds), distrustful Butter (James Harris) and drug-using Spaceman (Terrence DaShon Howard). The kids scorn the inexperienced Perlman at first but gradually accept her commitment to winning. As they make their way to the city championships, however, Shorty confronts the consequences of life in the ghetto, and his problems threaten the entire team.
   The script's trouble begins with Perlman's underdeveloped character. "Sunset Park" demands that you like her Phyllis right away, but by the end there's still no reason for the kids to have embraced her so readily. After all, when the film opens she don't know nuthin' about coaching no basketball, and other than being a little woman with a big mouth (Perlman's trademark since her "Taxi" and "Cheers" TV days) Phyllis doesn't command respect. She's so foolhardy about what she says it's miraculous she isn't physically assaulted on the court.
   But then, in this movie's worldview, Phyllis is celebrated as a white liberal savior bringing enlightenment to African-Americans--instead of being condemned as the naive meddler she is. "What's it like being white?" Shorty asks Phyllis in one of the film's many embarrassing bits of dialogue. And of course she asks him, "What's it like being black?" That exchange and many others aren't believable. Later, fiesty Phyllis confronts another white teacher who had the nerve to make Spaceman feel unwanted, but her tirade aginast the professor is exactly the kind of behavior she should be discouraging in her kids.
   Some role model.
   Among the actors, Starr stands out as Shorty because he does a remarkable job of transcending the script. There's something natural and unaffected about his performance that goes beyond the ridiculousness of his lines. Ironically, the film finally fails on the most basic level--the actual playing of basketball is rarely shown. Whenever the kids hit the court, director Steve Gomer does a lot of quick cutting to simulate the action that's not there. What really needed the chop was Phyllis' tedious talk. Starring Rhea Perlman, Fredro Starr and Carol Kane. Directed by Steve Gomer. Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Daniel L. Paulson. A TriStar release. Comedy. Rated R for some language and sexual references. Running time: 100 min
Tags: Starring Rhea Perlman, Fredro Starr, Carol Kane, Directed by Steve Gomer. Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Daniel L. Paulson, TriStar
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