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You know the type: the basic- and pay-cable male antihero. Walter White. Don Draper. Dr. John Thackery. Tony Soprano. Those charismatic men of few morals who make being bad alluring, if not downright attractive, even with their occasional gray-zone complications. Usually, they’re played by well-tested character actors who have toiled for years and, suddenly, have a chance to show off the full range of their talent. HBO’s new sports dramedy, Ballers, tweaks the formula slightly by casting a bona fide movie star as one of these bad-boy antagonists — an inspired choice, as it turns out.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, currently on the big screen going head-to-head with a megaearthquake in San Andreas, is magnetic as Spencer Strasmore, a retired football superstar trying to make a go of it as a financial manager for Miami athletes. He’s loyal to his friends, who include testy wide receiver Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), aimless former lineman Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller) and pushover rookie Vernon Littlefield (Donovan W. Carter). But he’s also looking to use these and other connections to build his business with his crude, coke-addict boss, Joe (Rob Corddry). In between wheeling and dealing, Spencer also is popping pills (chewing them like breath mints) to deal with a long-ignored injury that’s affecting his neurological functions.
Between that and the mere $200 he has in his bank account, Spencer is in dire straits, though he maintains the facade of being wealth/porn-obsessed, what with his tailored suits, fast cars and buxom gal pals. Johnson, too, revels in his character’s surface qualities, flashing that megawatt grin and rapid-firing his every word like a salesman who has prescient knowledge of his customers’ soft spots. The actor’s natural charisma makes Spencer palatable even at his worst, in scenes — like one in which he patiently sweet-talks Vernon into signing with his fledgling agency — where it’s clear he’s exploiting the friendships he’s developed over the years for his own long-term financial gain.
Johnson’s celebrity magnetism makes for a fascinating contrast with his character’s dark side. Over the course of the first four episodes sent out for review, cracks start to show in Spencer’s veneer that, one suspects, will become full-blown chasms by season’s end. It’s great to see Johnson rise to the dramatic occasion, since, even in his worst roles, there always have been flashes of something deeper. He does a particularly good job portraying Spencer’s reluctance to accept his medical condition, never going for easy sentiment or pathos but allowing his macho-fed stoicism (the way he’ll often hoist his body up from Atlas-shrug slouch to Superman stiff) to speak volumes.
That’s not to take anything away from the supporting players; if Johnson is the quarterback, they’re the necessary fullbacks, tackles and tight ends that make the team whole. Washington is a terrific hothead, forever at the mercy of his temper and boundless ego. (He has a very funny scene in which his coach attempts to teach him a rage-cooling mantra.) Miller and Carter are similarly excellent as two men who are, to varying degrees, coasting on their reputations without further cultivating them. And Corddry is hilarious as Joe, a perpetual devil on Spencer’s shoulder who has the craving for wealth if not the equivalent panache to get it. (In the third episode, he drunkenly and druggily presides over an all-night yacht party that turns spectacularly sour.)
Johnson is still the main attraction, and his multifaceted work here thankfully keeps Ballers, at least for the moment, from becoming Entourage for athletes. Here’s hoping there are no fumbles on the horizon.
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