Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

          Designed to transform NBA hero Julius “Dr. J.” Erving into a movie star, the tepid comedy The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh weaves astrology, basketball, disco, and surrogate fatherhood into a dubious underdog story. Erving, who wisely never made another movie after this project revealed his inability to act, stars as Moses Guthrie, the high-priced marquee player of a (fictional) team called the Pittsburgh Pythons. The Pythons endure an epic losing streak until the team’s precocious towel boy, Tyrone Millman (James Bond III), seeks advice from a psychic named Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing). Tyrone and Mona contrive the bizarre idea of replacing all the players on the Pythons with new athletes who share Moses’ aquatic star sign. Therefore, after an open tryout that attracts hordes of wanna-bes and weirdos, the Pythons are renamed “The Pittsburgh Pisces.” Then Moses leads the new ragtag group through a predictable but implausible winning streak.
          If the preceding description makes you suspect that The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh lacks dramatic conflict, then you’ve guessed the movie’s main problem—rather than a proper story, it’s a flat and repetitive series of vignettes featuring people accomplishing impossible things with marginal effort, although the smooth soundtrack by celebrated Philly-soul writer/producer Thom Bell gives the onscreen silliness a thumping backbeat. Every so often, the movie latches onto something good, especially during the exciting sequence of a scrappy Pisces player nicknamed “Setshot” (Jack Kehoe) forcing opposing players to foul him so he can score points with free throws. Mostly, however, the movie squanders the talents of people including character actors Michael V. Gazzo, Nicholas Pryor, and M. Emmett Walsh, comedy icons Flip Wilson and Jonathan Winters, and Harlem Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon. Only Debbie Allen, who plays a small role as a raunchy fan, makes much of an impression.
          Reflecting the absence of an interesting main storyline, lots of time is wasted on servicing boring, one-dimensional characterizations (a Native American player is named “Winston Running Hawk”), and the love story between Moses and Tyrone’s sister, Toby (Margaret Avery), is pathetic because Erving can’t muster the illusion of human connection. In fact, Erving’s most soulful scene involves him shooting basket after basket in an outdoor court at night while Avery watches him in awe. At its worst, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is merely a showcase for spectacle. Before the climactic game, the Los Angeles Lakers (including Kareem Abdul Jabar) enter the arena through a laser/smoke tunnel, and the Pisces descend from a hot-air balloon while wearing silver-lame uniforms. R&B group the Spinners serenades both teams. Oh, well. At least there’s lots of dunking and passing on the court, with real ’70s athletes sprinkled throughout the cast, and the game scenes are photographed relatively well.

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh: FUNKY

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