It requires a tricky balance of luck and preparation for a truly fantastic documentary to come together, and when that doesn't happen -- a subject clams up or proves uninteresting; perhaps the drama simply never unfolds -- most projects get sent to the scrap heap. Or, in the case of Kobe Doin' Work, they air on ESPN.
In April of last year, director Spike Lee fixed 30 cameras on soon-to-be MVP Kobe Bryant to document a late-season showdown with San Antonio for first place in the Western Conference. Needless to say, the production (which premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on ESPN on Saturday at 8 p.m.) took endless preparation as well as the approval of Bryant, the Lakers and coach Phil Jackson, whose locker room would be part of the picture. And for pulling all of that together Lee -- or, more likely, a legion of Lee's lackeys and wranglers -- deserves a pat on the back.
As fate would have it, though, the work was all for naught. The Spurs ended up playing the entire game without Manu Ginobili or Robert Horry and ultimately succumbed to L.A. 106-85. (One can't help but imagine Lee on his knees in the San Antonio locker room, imploring Ginobili to play through the pain. "The show must go on!") Meanwhile, Bryant spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench, icing his sore knees. These aren't the kinds of breaks that made Hoop Dreams what it was. This, folks, is exactly what we've come to expect from a regular-season NBA game. And that's why so few of us actually watch.
If there were ever any chance at salvaging this particular opportunity, Bryant and Lee simply weren't the duo to make it happen. Lee, for his part, put together an altogether not-so-amazing basketball movie. We've seen NFL Films churn out better stuff a million times, so it's hard to be impressed by Lee's access alone. And for all we've heard about how much of a workaholic Kobe is, it's disappointing to start the film with Kobe's arrival at the Staples Center and end on his departure in an SUV. Just five minutes at his house -- or in his car for the ride home -- would have done wonders for the production. Even the locker room access feels abbreviated and heavily censored. That bring us to the subject himself: Kobe.
In the wake of this film's April premiere at Tribeca, word leaked out, via the New York Post, that Bryant had demanded, and secured, creative control of the picture. Whether that actually happened is irrelevant; all that matters is that, indeed, Doin' Work is a neutered take on one of the more intriguing players the NBA has to offer.
On some levels it appears Bryant is doing the censoring first-hand. He narrates over 80 minutes of game footage and yet the only hints of personality we get are lame bits like, "I'm so amped up just watching this!" On five occasions we hear Kobe talk about how "fun" the game is. And even when he's seen sparring with Bruce Bowen, arguably one of the league's dirtiest players, we hear Kobe remark, "A lot of people hate playing Bruce. I love it! I think it's fantastic." Great! This movie is fun!
But it's not. Whether it happened this way, Doin' Work feels as if Bryant recorded his narration in one half-hearted take. Kobe doesn't really seem to grasp what insight he might possibly be offering until well into the second half of the game. Until that point he passes the time with lame observations like -- I kid you not -- "basketball is somewhat of a chess game; you've got to think things through a little bit." Meanwhile, we observe Kobe joking in Serbian (clearly vulgarly) with Sasha Vujacic or calling out, for example, play number "5C". Yet he declines to expound upon either scene.
In the second half, Bryant grows a little more comfortable in explaining, for example, the triangle offense. And now we've hyperdrived into an X's and O's pic. (Bizarrely, the director, who's sat out the entire film to this point, chooses this opportunity to inject his narrating voice with lame questions and conversation about, predictably, the Knicks.) So who, Spike Lee, is this movie intended for, anyway?
Whether he intended it or not, Lee has delivered a lame but loving homage pic. Even then, we miss out on the most interesting aspects of the character. Love Bryant or hate him, there's a fascinating movie to be made in spending a whole evening with one of the most cocksure, prickly and talented players in the NBA. Lee just missed out on the chance.