Two comedies pre­mier­ing

Dwayne John­son is a con­flicted ex-NFL player, and Jack Black bum­bles into a cri­sis.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD TELE­VI­SION CRITIC robert.lloyd@latimes.com

A look at new HBO comedies “Ballers” and “The Brink.”

Two new HBO comedies pre­miere Sun­day; each is worth a look.

“Ballers” stars Dwayne John­son in what might be the first truly life-sized role of his ca­reer, as Spencer Strasmore, a for­mer football star try­ing to make it as a Mi­ami-based fi­nan­cial man­ager. It was cre­ated by Steve Levin­son, a part­ner in var­i­ous Mark Wahlberg projects — Wahlberg is a pro­ducer here — and although it looks at first to be a sports-world “En­tourage,” a hor­ri­fy­ing thought, it pro­ceeds to reach for some­thing bet­ter.

Like a lot of pre­mium ca­ble shows, it has a kind of split per­son­al­ity, aim­ing on the one hand for a cer­tain new-golden-age qual­ity, while on the other giv­ing the peo­ple what it as­sumes the peo­ple are pay­ing for. It’s a show about act­ing re­spon­si­bly that makes hay from ir­re­spon­si­ble ac­tion. And though the se­ries’ main fe­male roles have been writ­ten as smarter than the men, it’s also been front-loaded with sex scenes and jokes, and stocked with hot women with lit­tle dra­matic pur­pose other than to be women and hot. The mi­lieu might jus­tify their pres­ence, the cre­ators might ar­gue, but plau­si­bil­ity doesn’t make it feel any less cheap.

A for­mer football player him­self, John­son, whose voice is of­ten oddly rem­i­nis­cent of Pres­i­dent Obama’s, is not a great ac­tor. But he’s not a bad one, ei­ther; he sells his char­ac­ter de­spite the con­stant dis­trac­tion of a su­per­hero body his cus­tom suits can’t dis­guise.

If any­thing, a lit­tle bit of stiff­ness fits the part: Spencer is a lit­tle re­pressed, emo­tion­ally, in de­nial, phys­i­cally, and not en­tirely com­fort­able in his new job, work­ing for a firm that’s hired him to “mon­e­tize” his friend­ships with highly paid sports stars.

And he has good sup­port. His costars in­clude Omar Ben­son Miller in a won­der­ful turn as a for­mer pro baller wrestling with re­tire­ment, John David Washington as a vet­eran player with poor im­pulse con­trol and Dono­van Carter as a ris­ing star who squan­ders his for­tune on fam­ily and friends.

It was a smart play to give John­son, whose jokes seem meant to fall a lit­tle flat, a co­me­dian, Rob Corddry, as a kind of in­verse straight man; most of the hu­mor in the show is un­der his care. In­deed, as comedies go, it seems mostly un­con­cerned with laughs. It’s a light drama, rather, its tone akin to that of shows like “Men of a Cer­tain Age” or the ex­cel­lent “How to Make It in Amer­ica,” to which Levin­son and Wahlberg were also at­tached.

Although it scrupu­lously in­cludes its own quo­tient of rude jokes and ir­rel­e­vant sex scenes, “The Brink” is a dif­fer­ent sort of se­ries. Its an­tecedents are cin­e­matic, most ob­vi­ously Stan­ley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” another satir­i­cal farce in which out­landish char­ac­ters hold the fate of the world in their hands; I don’t have the fig­ures in front of me, but this must be the first com­edy in some time that pro­poses World War III — that old thing — as a pos­si­ble out­come of the plot-driven ac­tion.

In­deed, for all its con­tem­po­rary con­cerns and pre­mium-ca­ble naugh­ti­ness, there is some­thing old-fash­ioned about it. It mocks the gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary in ways that have grown fa­mil­iar in the years since “Strangelove.” There are what feel like de­lib­er­ate nods to that film; a psy­chotic Pak­istani gen­eral’s claim that the United States has “a se­cret di­a­bol­i­cal pro­gram to al­ter the re­pro­duc­tive bi­ol­ogy of our girls and to emas­cu­late our boys” mir­rors a psy­chotic Amer­i­can gen­eral’s belief, in the ear­lier work, that Com­mu­nists are poi­son­ing “our pre­cious bod­ily f lu­ids.” But there are echoes too of “The In-Laws,” Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Wa­ter” and, for the real film scholars, “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.”

In the role of the boob upon whom great­ness is thrust, Jack Black is work­ing in an es­tab­lished tra­di­tion, as well. As a low-level em­bassy of­fi­cial in Is­lam­abad whose only real con­nec­tion to the coun­try is the one who sup­plies him with pot — un­til a mil­i­tary coup puts him at the cen­ter of a snow­balling cri­sis — he’s a kind of turned-up-to-11 Bob Hope, a cow­ard-hero for a gen­er­a­tion raised on dope and porn. And his scenes with the em­bassy driver who be­comes his part­ner in in­trigue (Aasif Mandvi) are straight out of the mis­matched-buddy-com­edy play­book.

Other sto­ry­lines fol­low the Amer­i­can sec­re­tary of State (Tim Rob­bins), an un­con­ven­tional, un­man­age­able cool head who is used to col­or­ing out­side the lines; and Pablo Schreiber as a drug-deal­ing fighter pi­lot (vague shades of “Strangelove’s” Slim Pick­ens) sent off to drop a bomb just as his per­sonal life im­plodes.

As a com­edy set in what is not just a po­lit­i­cal but also, for many, an emo­tional flash point, “The Brink” courts dis­as­ter. There is al­ways a ten­dency to con­fuse the stupid things the char­ac­ters say from what the au­thors, Roberto Ben­abib and Kim Ben­abib, them­selves be­lieve.

The se­ries keeps gen­er­ally on the right side of things by virtue of the ex­cel­lence and ex­u­ber­ance of the per­for­mances, which add flesh where needed; by mov­ing fast enough to keep ahead of your sec­ond thoughts; and by spread­ing the ridicu­lous­ness around. There are he­roes and vil­lains — smart peo­ple and id­iots — on ev­ery side. Its brief is for com­mon sense, un­tainted by ide­ol­ogy or su­per­sti­tion. (Some view­ers may find that of­fen­sive to their ide­olo­gies, of course.) The he­roes are the ones try­ing to avoid con­flict — and this too makes it strangely old-fash­ioned.

It is also, in its way, warm­hearted — cer­tainly it is less icy than “Dr. Strangelove” — with af­fec­tion for its char­ac­ters. It wants you to like them, at least a lit­tle, and to hope that the world doesn’t end, not just for the world’s sake, but for theirs.

Merie W. Wal­lace HBO

JACK BLACK stars in “The Brink,’ an echo of the Cold War “Dr. Strangelove” film.

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