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Legendary -- Film Review

The Bottom Line

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At one point in this coming-of-age drama, a teenage boy's mother expresses her profound bafflement: She doesn't understand what could possibly be fun about wrestling, the sport he's lately embraced. That she's played by Patricia Clarkson lends the question depth and urgency. But the heartfelt and clunky "Legendary" struggles to make the martial art compelling.

Followers of wrestler John Cena, who co-stars, aren't likely to find the WWE production revelatory, and the subject won't be an easy draw for fans of indie queen Clarkson. The Goldwyn release, bowing today, will pin its best hopes on the home-video market.

The drama centers on Cal (Devon Graye of "Dexter"), a high school outsider tormented by an unconvincing bully (Tyler Posey). He's also grappling with the estrangement between his mother and older brother, Mike (Cena), a one-time champion of the mat, and with the wrestling glories of his deceased father (a handy collection of newspaper clippings provides the backstory essentials).

Seeing Cal's academic potential, the last thing mom Sharon wants is for him to become consumed by the sport. He's got plenty of incentive, though: his beanpole physique, the flirtatious enthusiasm of lifelong friend Luli (Madeleine Martin, in a Southern-eccentric variation on her precocious daughter in "Californication") and the need to reach out to his brother and reunite his family.

Director Mel Damski and production designer Raymond Pumilia effectively use Louisiana locations to anchor the story in a working-class Oklahoma milieu. Not all of the film's elements mesh, however. The script emphasizes the sport's character-building aspects while acknowledging a darker side, but Damski inexplicably turns nearly every wrestling sequence into a rock-track-driven scene with little action impact.

The script by John Posey -- who appears in the small role of Cal's coach -- abounds in affection for its characters but also in on-the-nose dialogue. Every dramatic hurdle is cleared nearly as soon as it arises. Rather than pushing the familial tension, the story reaches for anemic "insights" from an intuitive strange (Danny Glover), who appears whenever Cal most needs him, providing folksy pep talks (and occasional voice-over narration). The final-act disclosure of his identity, however contrived, provokes the most affecting moment in Cena's performance.

The WWE star's beefy blankness can deliver only so much, but in the role of an uncommunicative, down-on-his-luck 28-year-old who's nearly paralyzed by self-reproach, he fits the bill. Still, there's no escaping the truth that Clarkson is in a different weight class from the rest of the cast. Her screen instincts and magnetism up the ante of every scene she's in, and she effortlessly suggests Sharon's insecurities as well as her strengths.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 10 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production: A WWE Studios presentation
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Tyler Posey, Madeleine Martin, John Posey
Director: Mel Damski
Screenwriter: John Posey
Producers: Michael Pavone, Dave Karl Calloway
Director of photography: Kenneth Zunder
Production designer: Raymond Pumilia
Music: James Alan Johnston
Co-producer: Nancy Hirami
Costume designer: Claire Breaux
Editor: Mitch Stanley
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes