Frequently funny, United We Fall is kept from greatness by a lack of structure, weird editing choices, and an uncertain attitude towards its cast.
United We Fall is one of those movies where it is very abundantly obvious that somebody came up with an idea one day and then went straight to filming no more than three days after the fact. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly what happened. The film was apparently wholly improvised – which explains the lack of any credited writers – and shot on a shoestring budget over the course of four days. It shows, but much less than one might think. In fact, let me make this abundantly clear, despite anything that I am about to say, I got a very good number of laughs of varying levels out of United We Fall, especially surprising since I had literally no expectations for it whatsoever. It’s just that the film’s various faults are more interesting to talk about than explaining when and why I laughed.
So, with that in mind, our conceit is an alternate reality in which, in 2010, Manchester United were on the verge of winning The Treble (Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League) before cocking it up spectacularly. Four years later, five members of the squad – posh self-obsessed pretty boy Olly Hunter (Jack Donnelly), working-class Manchester-native Danny Keegan (Ryan Pope), disruptive practical joker Stevo Fallis (James Rastall), superhuman and super-earnest German goalkeeper Kurt ‘Kurtzie’ Kurtz (Johnathan Broke), and late-season addition and extremely poor rapper Kwasi ‘Modo’ Amoako (Matthew Avery) – are reunited together by a documentary film crew, why they picked those five specifically is the film’s best joke and I will not even allude to it here, to tell that story in their own words.
In simplest terms, it’s The Class of ’92 as fed through This is Spinal Tap but on a miniscule budget. How miniscule? The majority of the film is quite literally just the five players talking to the camera with the same background. This isn’t a problem most of the time, but it becomes one when it comes to describing events on the pitch during those three crucial games. Watching players watching the footage back as they pull faces is the order of the day and, whilst this works for the finale (which, again, I am not spoiling), it feels awkward. The more ridiculous instances make creative sense, as one’s imagination amplifies whatever the cast are describing, but the more mundane ones, like a successful free-kick or a goal save, end up having their impact robbed somewhat. I understand that it’s a budgetary thing that can’t be helped, but it does affect the film to a degree.
Admittedly, though, that doesn’t hurt the film anywhere near as much as its incredibly poor editing does. Despite having a very clear structure for it to follow – backstory on the team members, the three games, a reunion dinner at the end – United We Fall still hops about madly like Rippa Roo from Crash Bandicoot, jumping from segment and topic to segment and topic with little rhyme or reason. Some segments get started and dropped only to be picked up later, some just get dropped completely, some have no reason for existing. There’s a part of me that wants to read it as a clever satire of amateurishly and aimlessly edited real documentaries, but the film is a bit too stuffed full of filler and too sloppy in said editing for me to give it a pass like that.
Speaking of, despite running a lean 89 minutes, United We Fall still barely gets far enough to justify this being a film instead of a one-hour BBC special or the like. So, to pad out the runtime, we get filler segments. Scenes of the players practicing or hanging out or the like make sense, they help deepen their characters even if they are often just really awkwardly shoved into the film at random points, but the film also has frequent cutaways to the Prime Minister (Robert Portal) – whose presence at least crosses into the main story at one point – and “Unofficial FIFA Ambassador” Farhad ‘Frank’ Farougi (Dana Haquoo) who specifically adds… absolutely nothing. Seriously, I have absolutely no idea what he was going on about half the time, his various scenes have that little correlation to the narrative of the film. It’s like he’s here purely because everybody thought they needed to parody corrupt FIFA execs, but had no idea how to integrate him into the film and never really got a handle on his character. I’d forgive such a thing if he were funny, but he’s just really boring so his presence sticks out as pure filler or an excuse to go on holiday for a day.
More damningly, and ultimately the main reason why my recommendation for the film is a soft one at best, United We Fall can’t ever seem to quite decide whether it views its cast with affection or contempt. To put it in simple terms, you know how This is Spinal Tap always knew exactly how it felt towards its protagonists? Affection but still calling them out on their stupidity and arsehole behaviour? United We Fall keeps flipping between deserved derision and desperate attempts to make us sympathise with them. The latter is when the film really falls down because, well, its cast are terrible people. They’re really entertaining, which is why spending 90 minutes in their presence isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation, but they are terrible people. Casually sexist, racist, homophobic, childish, petty, and a whole other bunch of words that express negative personality traits. You can probably tell why attempting to make them sympathetic is a terrible idea.
The problem isn’t so much their characterisation – they remain terrible people right up to the end with the only redeeming aspect of them being their continued inexplicably strong friendship bond with one another – it’s that the film can’t decide if it’s on their side or not. For a lot of the film’s runtime, the mishaps that ruin their games come from outside factors that have nothing to do with the characters, only the Champions League game commits to how ridiculously crappy the cast are, which gives off the impression that film wants you to genuinely feel sorry when these terrible people fail miserably. Similarly, all of its cast are sexist, racist and homophobic, where the jokes are about how sexist and racist and homophobic they are (read: you’re supposed to laugh at them, instead of with them), but the film sometimes ends up siding with them in service of a quick laugh. As an example, the film’s lone female interviewee, a PR at the club who contributes pretty much nothing to the film, is introduced with a secondary job descriptor of “Slapper”.
Again, that’s ultimately why my recommendation for United We Fall is rather soft instead of nice and secure, or something. I must restate, though, that despite all of its flaws I got a lot of laughs out of the film. The cast are all really damn good improvisers, it turns out, as there was rarely a prolonged stretch of time where I wasn’t laughing to some degree and there has been some genuinely great character work put in here to keep them from just feeling like five interchangeable shallow parodies of the public’s perception of footballers. United We Fall brushes up against genuine greatness enough for me to be disappointed that it’s not better than it is. If it had a few more days of filming, a bit more of a handle on its overall tone and much better editing, then it would undoubtedly have been my favourite surprise of 2014.
That being said, it’s a damn sight better than the majority of comedies I’ve seen so far this year, and those had scripts and actual full-on budgets. So, if you’re starved for comedies, then you should give United We Fall a shot. It is pretty damn funny, enough to be worth the ticket price and enough to make one wish it could have instead been really damn funny.
Callie Petch is like Billy Elliot and this is their ballet.