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Reviews: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Stars in ‘Ballers’ on HBO

Reviews: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson Stars in 'Ballers' on HBO

Hard as it may be to remember now that the movie has fouled the nest, there was a time when critics, at least many of them, were quite fond of “Entourage.” Stephen Levinson, who created that show, would love it if you would remember those early days, especially when writing about his new HBO series, “Ballers.” The show, which stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as an ex-pro football player starting a new career as a business manager for current NFL players, is compared to “Entourage” in every review, and even when it’s judged superior, it still suffers guilt by association. Depicting excess in order to critique it is a delicate business: When you’ve got a wealthy football player surrounded by scantily clad women, it’s difficult to argue that their breasts are ironic.

“Ballers'” saving grace — and, depending on the review, perhaps its only bright spot — is Johnson’s performance, with its sly wit, easy charm, and, as the episodes progress, increasing dramatic heft. The role of a former professional athlete moving into more business-minded territory isn’t a tremendous stretch, but he goes deep if not wide, and there’s real feeling in his character’s musings on the fleeting nature of fame and the need for constant reinvention, lest your adoring fans move on to some newer model. The show isn’t the unqualified wallow in dude-bro privilege some reviews, still smarting from “Entourage’s” most recent grab at continued relevance, suggest, but with few exceptions, women are ornaments and minor characters here, so you’d better find those dudes pretty fascinating.

Reviews of “Ballers”

Joshua Alston, A.V. Club

Despite “Ballers'” attempts to portray Spencer as a struggling everyman, the show is still a blue-skies, wish-fulfillment show, so Spencer is constantly reminding people that the suit he’s wearing was custom-made for him. The setbacks Spencer faces aren’t genuine roadblocks, at least in the four episodes screened for critics, and the main challenge he faces is how to go from winning all the time to winning slightly less of the time. “Ballers” also suffers from a deep inauthenticity in its portrayal of life after professional sports. Spencer is shown taking painkillers, which he chews and swallows by the handful like bulk candy, and he’s in denial about the possibility his football career has left him with lasting neurological damage. But there are none of the horror stories so common to former pros. It’s no wonder Spencer has so much trouble convincing these young gladiators to think about the fiscal future awaiting them after their playing days are over. Spencer is stuck in the same position, and as far as anyone can tell, his biggest concern is whether someone’s going to damage his impeccably tailored suit.

It won’t take three or four episodes for the audience to decide whether or not “Ballers” is a good fit. The proposition is simple: There’s a never-ending party featuring vodka torrents, cocaine flurries, larger-than-life personalities, and larger-than-natural breasts. Wanna go? 

Chuck Bowen, Slant 

In theory, an unwavering celebration of unchecked celebrity debauchery is no more or less tedious than a predictable, often hypocritical condemnation of it. At its best, “Ballers” stirs these equally knee-jerk reactions, both usually spurned by envy, together and allows the frictions to bounce off one another in a spikey, ideologically unresolved fashion that recalls ironically exhilarating greed fables like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or the liveliest, most astute portions of “Any Given Sunday.” We’re clearly meant to enjoy these men behaving badly, but a discernable panic also courses below their actions, pivotally distinguishing “Ballers” from the contemptuously pointless “Entourage”. Directed by Peter Berg, the pilot exhibits a jagged sense of humor that springs from the terror that these football players, worshipped as gods by many Americans, nevertheless feel at the prospect of eventually having to live merely as wealthy men who routinely have their asses kissed and their cocks stimulated in essentially any manner that their imaginations are capable of conjuring. These men may be at the top of the American food chain, but they’re still slaves driven by exaggerated versions of everyday capitalist fears. 

Hank Stuever, Washington Post 

Anticipating its audience’s desires, “Ballers” mainly fixates on cars, yachts, houses, topless women and raunchy sex — and a nominal amount of football. It’s hard to tell whether “Ballers” means to make the high life seem as rote and empty as it does (my hunch is that the producers and writers are given more to bouts of envy than sermonizing), but the show and its actors are so much better when zooming in on serious matters, such as the possibility that the Vicodin-popping Spencer suffers from neurological damage from his years on the field. 

Brian Lowry, Variety

Nothing here is remotely new, of course, whether seen before on old movies like “North Dallas Forty” or “Playmakers,” a short-lived ESPN series the network jettisoned under pressure from the image-conscious NFL. Indeed, all Levinson (working on the premiere with director Peter Berg, who also has a small role in the show) has really done is substitute the gang from “Entourage” with African-American stars basking in the glory and headaches associated with fame and fortune, and moved the setting from L.A. to the equally bikini-friendly backdrop of Miami. Johnson certainly brings star quality to the proceedings, and the mix of sports and male-oriented pastimes (the women here, as with “Entourage”,” are generally little more than well-adorned props) should invest the show with appeal in bastions beyond traditional sitcoms. In the early going, that includes cameos by former NFL greats, like Miami’s Larry Csonka and coach Don Shula. Yet despite knowing the turf, “Ballers” — premiering at a point when exploitation of athletes and debilitating injuries are very much in the news — isn’t savvy enough about its subject matter to leave a mark. Sure, it’s easy enough to watch, but almost wholly inconsequential, and forgotten as soon as the final gun sounds.

Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist

The “Entourage” formula of agents and stars doesn’t just end with the characters here, but through the general structure of the show, which is usually for the worse. Women once again function as ornamentation, playing either wives, girlfriends, or sex objects without much to actually say or do, other than to appear nude on occasion. But while the show revolves around men and masculine activities, those characters are just as one-dimensional in their portrayal. And there’s not much in the way of actual drama, with the biggest plotlines in the first third of the season revolving around signing contracts, Ricky enduring locker room shenanigans from a new teammate, and Charles facing a marital crisis due to a series of sexy texts from a woman he met a party. By the third and fourth episodes — “Move The Chains” and “Heads Will Roll” — you can almost feel the writers room getting antsy to deliver something lively, as a giant party, its aftermath, followed by another smaller party, take up the entire narrative.

Keith Uhlich, Hollywood Reporter

Johnson’s celebrity magnetism makes for a fascinating contrast with his character’s dark side. It’s great to see Johnson rise to the dramatic occasion, since, even in his worst roles, there always have been flashes of something deeper. He does a particularly good job portraying Spencer’s reluctance to accept his medical condition, never going for easy sentiment or pathos but allowing his macho-fed stoicism (the way he’ll often hoist his body up from Atlas-shrug slouch to Superman stiff) to speak volumes. That’s not to take anything away from the supporting players; if Johnson is the quarterback, they’re the necessary fullbacks, tackles and tight ends that make the team whole. Johnson is still the main attraction, and his multifaceted work here thankfully keeps “Ballers”, at least for the moment, from becoming “Entourage” for athletes. Here’s hoping there are no fumbles on the horizon.

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