Here’s a novelty: Touchback may be the first film in history where you have to see the trailer first. Not that it’s a particularly good trailer (frankly, it’s not), but it’s the only advance indication you may have of what the movie is really about. Touchback’s first act tells the story of a high school football hero who busts his leg and ends up overweight, running a failing farm,losing his house and refusing to give in to the requests from his old coach, played by Kurt Russell, to help train the local team. But instead of coaching that team, learning a valuable lesson and busting that gut down to abs again, he travels back in time to relive the week before the big game. Call it “Peggy Sue Got Tackled.”
There’s nothing terribly wrong with that story – well, okay, there is, but we’ll get to that in a second – but for a very long time, Touchback offers no hint that this is where the movie is going. It seems like a good-hearted, slightly melancholy tale of redemption is on our way, and then bam! Time travel. I suspect I might have liked Touchback better if I had known this is where we were headed. Then again, maybe not. We’ll get to that too.
Bryan Presley stars as Scott Murphy, who, after damaging his leg, stayed in his tiny community of Coldwater, where attendance at the local high school is higher than the actual population of the town. He spends his time farming soybeans and driving around the community taking alcoholics safely home. He’s married to the lovely Melanie Lynskey, has two children with no defining characteristics and resents Kurt Russell’s attempts to integrate him back to the community. A spectacular and depressing series of events transpire that make Scott attempt suicide in his car, only to wake up back in high school days before his debilitating injury, where he’s confronted with the opportunity to change the future in his favor.
It’s a standard fantasy, familiar to anyone with regrets or who may have seen Hot Tub Time Machine or Mr. Destiny. You go back in time to your heyday, relive old glories, make certain decisions differently and make time with your old flame. In movies, you also attempt to reconnect with the people who became important to you in the future, only to discover that in the current (read: past) context they want nothing to do with you. And in movies, you discover that despite having fewer opportunities, despite being less successful in almost every way, despite getting yourself to the position where suicide seems like an option, you’ll be better off without changing a damned thing. Doesn’t that seem like crap to you?
Touchback isn’t a bad movie, aside from the makeup effects that look like someone just shoved a pillow down Bryan Presley's shirt. It’s just an unconvincing one. There’s no reason to suspect that the hero’s life would have been worse if he hadn’t broken his leg. As a teenager he’s confronted with his future wife’s lack of ambition – she just wants to stay in her hometown and inherit the family farm – but not with any evidence that he’d be unhappier elsewhere. His old high school buddy Marc Blucas shows up in the future (read: present), married to Presley’s old flame, and he’s a successful pro football player, happy, financially successful and a truly kind person. Oh, what a nightmare must have awaited our hero in this alternate future, where a nice marriage would have been replaced by a similarly nice marriage and the fulfillment of all his other dreams as well.
The film’s message is “settle for what you’ve got.” Even the tagline sounds judgmental against ambition: “Would you give up everything you love for a shot at everything you’ve wanted?” Granted, Touchback is not a realistic film, but if it was, the moral would have been easier to accept. Most of us can’t go back in time and fix our youthful mistakes, armed with the foreknowledge and wisdom, so we do have to make the most of it. Without this conceit, the hero would have had to swallow his pride, coach the high school football team, and make his proverbial lemons into proverbial lemonade.
But Touchback offers the hero the opportunity to go back in time and buy lemonade in the first place. He’s concerned about sacrificing his marriage, but that’s the only downside to the alternate future he would craft for himself, and there’s no reason to suspect that with more than a few days to court Melanie Lynskey in this parallel dimension he couldn’t have made it work out after all. She clearly likes him, they just have a difference of opinions. If Touchback is claiming that a good marriage can’t survive a difference of opinion, I put it to you that Touchback must never have been married. At least, not happily.
I disagree with the premise, but Touchback isn’t a bad movie if you buy into it. Kurt Russell is fantastic as always, Melanie Lynskey is wonderful and beautiful (as usual) and Presley’s okay in the lead role. (Recognizable character actor James Duval, of Donnie Darko fame, repeatedly shows up in the background but has nothing whatsoever to do; I suspect his part ended up on the cutting room floor.) The film was clearly made with the best intentions, even though it plays like the kind of movie Truman Burbank would find on cable. It’s not terribly funny when it wants to be, and only somewhat rousing when the big game starts, but if you subscribe to Touchback’s humble mentality you may enjoy the experience. It’s on Blu-ray now, with a decent transfer, a behind the scenes documentary and a commentary track by Bryan Presley and writer/director Don Handfield.
Photo Credits: Wallace Crouch