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Susan Sarandon’s Racist Bowling Cult Deserves a Better Movie Than ‘The Gutter’

SXSW
SXSW

A lot of athletes involved in less popular sports—games that aren’t soccer, football, basketball, hockey; you get the gist—don’t get their time in the spotlight. Where are all the movies about famous fencers? We could use an uplifting movie about water polo. As we learn in the gonzo comedy The Gutter, the world of bowling is a fraught, racist, and uber-competitive area of the world worth mining for stories just like any of the bigger sports.

Alright, so maybe The Gutter, Yassir and Isaiah Lester’s debut feature that premiered March 12 at the SXSW Film Festival, isn’t an entirely accurate portrayal of bowling. But, then again, is there really not a cult of racist competitors who fix games, all working underneath the bowling news network Bowl Lives Matter? Has Susan Sarandon really not held the world bowling championship title since 1999? Are you actually not allowed to spin the ball in a circle over your head every time you want to knock down a few pins? Maybe not.

But all in all, do these bonkers, fantastical edits to the game of bowling make The Gutter a fun, farcical ride? Well, also no.

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Walt (Shameik Moore) can’t hold down a job to save his life. He got fired from an electronics store for being rude to a kind lesbian couple, was removed from a waitstaff for acting like a stripper, and now, he wants to work at the AlleyCatz bowling alley as a bartender. Owner Mozell (Jackée Harry) knows he’d be a bad hire, but onboards him anyway. Mozell likes him because he’s “stupid,” she says. Walt is pleased that his uniform is a bowtie and no shirt, and he takes a liking to frequent customers Skunk (D’Arcy Carden), a former professional bowler, and Brotha Candy (Rell Battle), a super-religious guy with no connection to bowling.

Tragedy strikes AlleyCatz when a health inspector (a fun cameo from Adam Brody) pops in to check on the kitchen, deeming it unsafe as soon as he spots some furry creature crawling around beneath the stove. AlleyCatz will need to complete around $200,000 worth of repairs within the next 60 days, or it’ll be shut down for good. Walt, irate, starts hurling bowling balls down the lanes—and can’t stop getting strikes. There’s magic in his hand, Skunk says. She’ll train him to become a pro bowler and pick up enough cash to fix up AlleyCatz. After some hesitation, Skunk finally seals the deal by saying Walt will be able to keep most of the money he wins.

Walt gives himself a crude stage name—we can’t publish it, and the white bowling officials certainly can’t be saying it aloud; it does use the n-word, although perhaps not spelled the way you may think—and slaps a few PornHub stickers (his dream sponsor) onto his bare chest to create his new bowling identity. Walt and Skunk are a fun duo, if perhaps a little too absurd at times: Skunk’s recurring joke is that she’s an alcoholic who loves warm beer—sure—and Walt really wants to have a threesome.

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On a comedic level, The Gutter is too quiet to be slapstick but too random to actually have an intelligent sense of humor. Some of the jokes—like Walt’s kooky sponsorship deals with cigarettes and spicy milk—land. But others, like Skunk demanding beef stroganoff in the middle of a tense game, try too hard for spontaneous laughs, almost like a small kid begs for attention. The film’s script lands about half the time: Anything involving Sarandon is a hoot; most involving the tired Skunk are a bust.

Sarandon enters around halfway through the film as retired pro bowler Linda Curson, who also happens to be Skunk’s estranged mother. With bedazzled hot-pink gloves, a spicy attitude, and a disdain for her try-hard daughter, Linda steals every scene she’s in. The real war should be between her and Walt, although Walt only wants to sleep with her. Instead, we see Skunk fighting her maternal demons. Linda is a fabulous villain, but she needs a more solid pair of protagonists to butt up against.

If The Gutter leaned into the racist bowling cult a little more—such a far-fetched, delightful idea that is only briefly touched upon in the film—it could be a riotous late-night comedy. But because the film is burdened with delving into its least-interesting character’s childhood and throwing a bunch of quirky-yet-unfunny one-liners into the mix, the bowling balls are always landing in…well, the gutter.

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