Besides signing pretend quarterback Taysom Hill to a four-year, $40 million contract, the worst decision Sean Payton ever made was agreeing to turn his year of exile into a Netflix sports comedy starring Kevin James and Kevin James’ older brother.
The bastard spawn of Little Giants and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Home Team is the confusing attempt to drape over Payton’s year-long suspension with a tepid Happy Madison sports comedy. The film tries to make the story of an NFL coach being historically suspended for overseeing a bounty program into a heartwarming tale of a workaholic dad who coaches his kid’s little league team while, you know, he’s being historically suspended for overseeing a bounty program that enabled NFL players to reap financial reward for harming the opponent.
The film treats Payton’s crimes as points of growth rather than shrouds of shame, asking James to stick his jaw out a bit and mean-mug his way around a Davey and Goliath episode that teaches this 40-something millionaire the love of the game over the success of it. It’s a film charging forward for a happy ending like Wile E. Coyote gunning for a Roadrunner dinner, unaware of the giant cliff that sits on the horizon. It doesn’t matter that, again, its central character has been privy to some of the worst offenses in NFL history as long as there are cheap obstacles for him to overcome. In the end, all that matters in the universe of Home Team is that Payton learns some hashtag-lessons and gets heralded back like a hero. It’s a disturbingly bland, cheerful film with such a dark underbelly.
James only understands how to play Payton based on his sideline leers. While he’s certainly got a more intriguing slant to his acting (see his surprising turn as a neo-Nazi in 2020’s enjoyable B-grade spatterfest Becky), Home Team shows the actor in coast mode. He’s the straight man in every scene, leaving the bumbling mawkishness to his real-life brother, Gary Valentine. Valentine’s role mostly involves falling down and making obtuse comments at the worst moments, which makes him an acceptable avatar for James’ usual role in these films. Though, being as Payton’s best performances usually involve a bit of hubris, James really didn’t have much to go off of in preparing for the role.
The film isn’t as mindless as some of Happy Madison’s worst offenses (look at you, forever, That’s My Boy), but it has the artistic flair of expired vanilla pudding and the rah-rah football emptiness of a Jon Gruden Hooters commercial. Clearly trying to reach for the 90s Disney sports comedy, the film comes up short because it has nothing interesting to say, an old soda-flat script that can’t elevate its youthful cast past “hey, look, those are kids” and the whole elephant in the room of rooting an inspirational sports comedy in the suspension of a grown adult who oversaw a bounty program that probably ended Brett Favre’s career.
To make matters worse, when the film does try to lurch for the Happy Madison low-hanging fruit, it comes off as more repulsive than if the whole film just admitted its intents at the jumpstart. One scene involves Rob Schneider and an entire field of pee-wee football players projectile vomiting at each other, a scene so abjectly stomach-churning you’d think it was devised by Kyle Shanahan in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
If you’re a Saints fan and you’d prefer “alternative facts” for Payton’s suspension, a time where, apparently, he learned Saturday Afternoon Special lessons about being a team player and being a better dad, and was made all the better for it, then Home Team is probably going to at least be a mildly diverting watch where your favorite team’s logo is on hats and shirts and stuff. If you are literally anyone else, then you’d best stay out of the stinky locker room that is whatever on earth this movie is.
It’s not the worst movie James has starred in (that still goes to Zookeeper), but it is a bafflingly inert attempt to reframe the narrative on Payton’s deserved temporary banishment with the saltine cracker of sports movies. No 7-9 season can match the embarrassment of having the worst moment of your career immortalized in a movie where Nick Swardson was apparently too busy for a cameo. Though, can you imagine if Swardson was around to play Drew Brees in the Super Bowl flashbacks?
The only thing Payton gets out of this movie is karma and a cameo where he plays a janitor. After about a decade since his year in exile, the coach’s punishment for Bountygate is finally complete.