The Curious Case of Space Jam

Space Jam (Pytka, 1996) is indescribable as a work of film without descending into a sort of gibbering madness- how can one rationalize what transpires over the course of the 88-minute fever dream without sounding like a raving lunatic? It is therein, however, that the picture finds its enduring strength; the feeling that this film is an impossibility, an anomaly, the ultimate product of mid-90’s corporate groupthink, is overshadowed by the fact that, despite every effort to convince audiences to the contrary, this film is wholly entertaining, both on an ironic nostalgia fuelled, level, and on a less cynical one. It is a relic of a bygone era, of unbridled optimism turned sour by its own successes. No film since has captured such a level of absurdity with such grace, nor has any more recent similarly themed or produced film remained a part of the cultural zeitgeist so enduringly as Space Jam.

The premise of the film is something out of an executive’s dreams, and a critic’s darkest nightmares. In 1996, Michael Jordan was inarguably the biggest name in basketball, and his humorously short-lived traipse into minor-league baseball somehow only increased his fame. The Looney Tunes, while waning in popularity, were as much a cultural icon as they are today. The combination of the two, along with 90’s comedy mainstays Wayne Knight and Danny DeVito, with guest appearances by Bill Murray, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and a plethora of less iconic NBA stars of the day, made for an incredibly star-studded, appealing cast.

Murray, of course, is the icing on the proverbial cake; the comic legend somehow turns the mediocre script into a work of fourth-wall shattering brilliance. His demeanor suggests that he’s more aware of the unlikely circumstances surrounding the film’s context than even the above-the-line crew, and it would be surprising to find that his lines were written into the script as-delivered. The overt reference to Reitman’s pull in getting Murray to appear (when Daffy finally asks Murray how he arrived in the world of the Looney Tunes, Murray simply responds that he is a friend of the producer) is a bit of brilliance in an otherwise simple scene. Murray plays the deus ex machina with such subtlety and awareness that he is able to steal the show, while still remaining in the background of the film.

What is foregrounded, however, makes for a much more compelling reading of the film; one could easily look at the context of the film’s release, and come away realizing that the film is less a blatant cash-grab on the part of Jordan, and more a deliberate attempt to mythologize himself in film form. From the film’s opening shot, it is clear that Jordan’s will is present in the production choices being made; we are given a scene wherein a young Jordan stays up late practicing his free-throws, explicitly naming his ambitions to play for his real-life collegiate team, then then the NBA, and finally to move on to baseball, like his father. This sort of “cherry-tree” narrative is interesting, to say the least. As an audience, we are aware that we are watching something contrived and fictional, but the scene has a certain realism to it, despite seeming a bit revisionist.

From there, the story’s first act is essentially a mockumentary of the events leading up to his return to basketball, interspersed with the buildup of the Tunes’ conflict with the Monstars. There’s an unironic coldness to it; while the Tunes point out that Jordan simply isn’t a baseball player, making a joke at his failed attempts at switching sports, the scenes we are given of Jordan’s home life during his short-lived baseball career reek of the sort of melancholy and disappointment that must have come with his experiences at the time. His wife and family are supportive, but the media actively tears his decision apart. One finds sympathy for Jordan, as well as admiration; if he were truly as humiliated by his underperformance in baseball as the film would have us believe, then the fact that the film exists, and is able to point out his humiliation with such frankness and humor, sits as a gesture of Jordan’s goodwill towards his audience. Rather than a spiteful, or even vindictive, version of his past, Jordan stars in an idealized, yet humble vision of what he wanted for his career. His return to basketball was a result of his realizing that he was meant to play the game, rather than being forced back by embarrassment.

The film’s worldwide box-office gross of $230 Million (According to Boxofficemojo.com) is a testament to the fact that this was a film designed to draw audiences, rather than to present them with anything of particularly high quality. That said, despite the film’s obvious shortcomings, there’s an earnestness present in both the text itself and the surrounding meta-contexts. The film winkingly points out its own production history, simultaneously lampooning itself and asking audiences to accept the insanity that managed to make it to the screen. Jordan’s sometimes wooden acting, rather than simply being endured by audiences, endears him to us; we see that, truly, his calling is basketball. Acting is something, much like baseball, that he would like to be skilled at, but simply cannot do with any expertise. This amiable family romp is laced with traits symptomatic of its specific time and place of origin, and is therefore worth more of a look than would normally be afforded to it.

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