||Though the title is “Touchback,” writer-director Don Handfield’s picture might just as well be called “Throwback,” as it’s such a defiantly old-fashioned piece, obviously indebted to the spirit of Frank Capra—and particularly “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Of course, since it’s about football, one is almost compelled to add that it’s not in the same league.
Brian Presley stars as Scott Murphy, a struggling Ohio farmer with a bum leg that he injured, we learn, in the last play of the last football game of his senior year in high school. He was quarterback of the team, which was struggling against a much larger, more brutal urban squad for the state championship. After leading the squad almost single-handedly from a deep deficit, rather than passing the ball he opted to run it to the goalpost himself, getting the winning touchdown but shattering his dream of a career at Ohio State, and the NFL beyond, in the process. Now, just as the town is about to celebrate the anniversary of that championship win, he’s on the verge of losing his farm to the bank. And when he tries to harvest his soybeans before the rains come, a branch in the field breaks the only harvester in the area and dooms his chances.
Scott’s response is to attempt suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. But as he loses consciousness in the cab of his pickup, he finds himself miraculously sent back in time to the week just before that big game—with all the memories of his life with wife Macy (Melanie Lynskey) and their two darling daughters intact. The problem is that back then his girlfriend was a sexy cheerleader, and he barely knew Macy, the mousy clarinetist in the marching band. So Scott is caught in a dilemma. Will he change history by avoiding the injury and going off to Ohio State and a different—presumably wealthier—life, but presumably losing Macy by doing so? Or will he take that goal-line hit and the crushed hopes it brought in order to keep history, and his marriage, as he remembers them?
One can imagine a variety of ways in which Scott might conceivably get the best of both worlds—keep his leg but win Macy, too—which is the most obvious weakness of the screenplay. But if you’re willing to swallow the one-or-the-other premise, “Touchback” is played about as well as you can expect of a grossly manipulative sports movie that tries to plant Capracorn in a “Field of Dreams.” It’s certainly helped by the presence of Kurt Russell, who handles the part of Scott’s avuncular coach with the air of an actor who’s done all it requires before but hasn’t tired of bringing his amiable talent to the cliches. Further luster is added by Christine Lahti, who gives Scott’s hard-working, supportive mom a glow a lesser actress could never have managed. And Lynskey does a nice job with the double role of the klutzy high-school student and Murphy’s older, wiser wife.
The same is true of Presley, a likable fellow who carries off the difficult job of posing as both versions of Murphy. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s more convincing as the limping, crestfallen farmer of the first and last reels; he’s really too old to be a persuasive eighteen-year old, and the gambit of surrounding him with other similarly-aged guys as his teammates makes matters worse instead of better. (Marc Blucas, who plays the buddy who does go on to a career in the NFL, is even more obviously unsuited to his part than Presley is.) But though the option of using different actors in the single roles might have worked, it could have been ludicrous, too (just think of how we were supposed to believe that Zach Efron grew up to be Matthew Perry in “Seventeen Again”).
The production team give “Touchback” the glowing, burnished look one expects of such fare, with David Morrison’s cinematography and William Ross’s score standing out on the technical side. And it’s certainly a step forward for such uplifting material to omit the sort of heavy-handed religiosity that’s become so commonplace nowadays. But while you might appreciate the earnestness of the movie, it isn’t carried off well enough to overcome the essential triteness of the premise.