Perhaps my favorite blatant product-placement moment of the 2021 movie year comes in the well-intentioned but uneven college sports drama “National Champions,” when a group of football players scarf down a half-dozen pizza pies (the labels on the boxes prominently displayed) — a scene which is followed by an authority figure bursting into the now-vacated room and wondering out loud:
“WHO BOUGHT ALL THIS PIZZA HUT!”
That’s just ahead of my second-favorite blatant product-placement moment of the 2021 movie season, which also occurs in “National Champions,” when a player sits on his hotel room bed and we see a pile of popular candy bars scattered around him and he says:
“Thank God Snickers sponsored this game and not an insurance company.”
Shew. Thank God.
Based on the stage play of the same name and directed by stuntman turned filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh (who helmed last year’s terrific thriller “Greenland”), this is a curiously disjointed film that often loses momentum as we follow some meandering storylines and developments that feel arbitrary and, in some cases, superfluous. There’s no disputing the talent of the cast, starting with Stephan James (who played Jesse Owens in 2016’s “Race”) as LeMarcus James, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and soon to be No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, who just days before the national championship matchup in New Orleans announces he’s boycotting the game to fight for all college athletes, from the biggest football and basketball stars to the last men and women on the swimming and lacrosse and volleyball teams, to be compensated fairly as paid employees of the multi-billion dollar “amateur athletics” complex rather than be classified as student-athletes.
Along with his best friend and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), LeMarcus hides in plain sight and takes his case to social media, even as his head coach (J.K. Simmons) and various conference and college football executives (played by Uzo Aduba, Jeffrey Donovan and David Koechner, among others) scramble to get this thing under control before more players join the boycott and the game is canceled. Nearly every scene in “National Champions” features a welcome and familiar face: Hey, there’s Lil Rel Howery as an assistant coach! Isn’t that Timothy Olyphant hidden behind that beard as a college professor? What is happening now with Kristin Chenoweth as the head coach’s wife, who seems to be in a movie of her own as she indulges in an affair that everybody seems to know about? And what in the world is Tim Blake Nelson up to as a seedy school booster with some nefarious intentions?
They’re all veering this way and that, and just about every character gets a Big Speech Moment. (LeMarcus has three or four, and his best buddy Emmett actually recites Samuel L. Jackson’s entire “Ezekiel 25:17” soliloquy, for absolutely no good reason.) As we count down to the big game and LeMarcus must decide what’s best not only for him but for the good of all amateur athletes, “National Champions” continually invokes a heavy-handed, angelic choir score more befitting an apocalyptic sci-fi film than a sports drama. The ruling on the field is this is an incomplete pass.