' ' Cinema Romantico: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Rodman: For Better or Worse

As someone who has read both “Bad As I Wanna Be” and “Walk on the Wild Side”, Dennis Rodman’s 1996 and 1997, respectively, books, recounting many of the same anecdotes and milestones proffered in the latest entry to ESPN’s never-ending “30 for 30” documentary series “Rodman: For Better or Worse”, I can confirm each of these literary forays was more style than substance, epitomized in the alternating fonts, types and sizes, an assortment of thoughts and feelings and list of nutty things he did, coming across more like a rock star, really, than a rebel. It’s not far from what Bob Costas said at the time, the idea that Rodman, in his endless on and off court antics, whether it was head-butting a referee or wearing a wedding dress to his first book launch, wasn’t really standing up to anything but just acting out for acting out’s sake. As Todd Boyd, a history professor, practically smirking, says of things like Rodman dabbling in a gay lifestyle while bragging about sleeping with Madonna, you can’t really reconcile his politics. And what most stood out to me watching “Rodman: For Better or Worse”, as it cycled through his lack of a father figure, his seeming unwillingness to even try to be a father to his own kids, his utter devotion to basketball and then being unable to function without it, the hangers-on taking advantage, etc., is how ordinary the story of Dennis Rodman is at its heart.

That perhaps inadvertent truth is evoked in director Todd Kapostasy’s attempts to spruce up the sports doc aesthetic, beginning with a semi-comic sleight of hand, showing waves washing up on the beach and then having narrator Jamie Foxx call attention to this visual cliché. Mostly, though, this visual pizazz just feels superficial, with imagined scenes behind a fictional Rodman’s head as he goes from place to place signifying nothing. Elsewhere, Kapostasy tries to evince the otherworldly brand of basketball Rodman played through animation set in space, a metaphor less useful than just showing us how and why his play was so unique, which the doc does not, falling back on a run-of-the-mill assemblage of Rodman Playing Basketball clips; his transcendent game deserved truer artistry. No, like so many latter day 30 for 30 docs, suggesting it might be time to stop churning these things out, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” mostly just checks off highlights and lowlights in order, complimenting them with talking heads and basic clips.

The most successful meta episode involves a parody, of sorts, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famed musical “Oklahoma!”, with a black character for the lead, suggesting Rodman who, as the documentary recounts in its best passage, fled north for the Sooner State from his home in Dallas after being kicked out by his tough-love mother, enrolled at Southeastern Oklahoma State where his athletic skill bloomed and he became surrogate son to the conservative, white Rich Family. A current Broadway production has put the whiteness of “Oklahoma!” under the microscope with a partially black cast, and the moment in “Rodman: For Better or Worse” when matriarch Pat Rich alternately expresses affection for Rodman even as she literally calls him the “n” word right there on camera is a simple and stunning evocation of how racism can so easily and innately be baked into people who likely will tell you that racism is just a media conspiracy.

Elements like this suggest “Rodman: For Better or Worse” as something akin to “O.J.: Made in America”, a meditation on race and celebrity, a uniquely American tragedy, particularly when Kapostasy spiritually connects the image of Rodman weeping after winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 with an image of him weeping over a decade later on Celebrity Rehab. Yet as the documentary proceeds, the less it meditates on anything, just sort of sitting back in slack-jawed awe along with the audience, like its brief excursion into Rodman’s so-called Basketball Diplomacy, the sit-downs, or whatever the hell they are, with his self-professed “friend”, Kim Jong-un. Kapostasy, frankly, has no idea what to make of this material. At a certain point with this guy, what can you do, what can you think, what can you say? Rodman’s central interview cut to throughout is set on theatre stage, but it’s hard not to think it should have been a therapy couch. It’s emblematic that by the end all the self-conscious visual schtick has fallen away because “Rodman: For Better or Worse” has ceased to be anything like cinema; it’s just a cry for help.

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