Wear and Tear
by DICK CHENEY
creator Stephen Levinson
Since Ballers is usually a term that refers to people living life well, it is strange that it does not seem to apply to anyone on this show. Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson) is a deeply unhappy ex-football player trying to represent athletes in the greater Miami area. The Rock is just 44, but due to decades of wear and tear on his body from life as a professional wrestler, he looks considerably older. The fact that he is so completely hairless makes him resemble something like a cross between Lord Varys and the Predator.
In the ring, The Rock was not much of an artist. When he looked to transition to acting, he did the only sensible thing, which was take as many lessons as he could. His first major foray into this new art form was a role in the 2002 action romp, The Scorpion King. Christ was he bad in this movie, giving absolutely no indication that even fourteen years later he could manage the role of Spencer Strasmore, as close to his own background as that part is.
Wrestlers, in Vince McMahon’s world, are classified as independent contractors. This is the immoral way that a company with a billion dollar valuation gets away with not paying for their employees’ travel and lodging on a grueling road schedule that keeps them away from their families for almost three hundred days a year. Being a football player requires a lot less work comparatively, although depending on how hard you are hit, it can be even more dangerous.
The Rock did not like to be hit, but he never minded doling out the punishment. In a tragic night at the 1998 Royal Rumble, he got overly excited and bashed a chair into the skull of his opponent more than twenty times, causing a severe concussion that would end the man’s career a few years later and permanently scar him for life. It was these disturbing moments that turned The Rock into Dwayne Johnson — he never planned to take such risks with his own body and saw the chance as a safer, more lucrative career.
Still, the fact that men (his father Rocky Johnson and his maternal grandfather Peter Maivia) on both sides of his family tree were huge stars in that industry keep him coming back. The Rock’s last professional wrestling match was three years ago. He tore his tendons from his pelvis in a match with John Cena. The months off in rehab delayed shooting on his next film. Brett Ratner’s version of the Hercules myth did well overseas, making $244 million on a budget of $100 million. For the role Johnson received $10 million; substantially more than his payoff for that year’s Wrestlemania. The movie was shit.
It is in fact hard to think of a movie Dwayne Johnson has starred in that was actually any good. The Fast and Furious films are so completely painful and devoid of any inspiration whatsoever that they certainly make Johnson stand out as the only interesting aspect of them. Comedy should suit him, but for some reason he was the straight man in this year’s Central Intelligence: watching Kevin Hart act is painful enough.
Despite the fact that all his projects are garbage, Johnson has improved so much as a performer. This was inevitable, as the innate charisma he possesses was only waiting for the right role. Spencer Strasmore is this role. The main relationship in Ballers is the friendship between Johnson’s Strasmore and his partner Joe (Rob Corddry). It is fun to watch the normally spastic Corddry portray more of a laid, back realistic character, and he was the absolute best part of the Hot Tub Time Machine duology, where his acting chops were sorely underused.
The two are so good together in Ballers that you ignore how painful is it to watch an ancient Andy Garcia mug for the camera as their antagonist, Andre. The rest of the largely African-American cast completes Johnson far better. As Dolphins general manager, Dulé Hill is magnificent in a role that plays to all his strengths, and John David Washington is almost as compelling as Johnson himself in the role of a Dolphins wide receiver.
The weakest part of the show is its realism. Ballers presents itself as a behind-the-scenes type look, but it never approaches any of the excess that might shock or appall viewers. It is more about how everyone involved in this disturbing industry of destroying black mens’ brains and paying them on non-guaranteed contracts is actually not terrible.
Wrestlers never had a union, because they never had the leverage for one. Their general mistreatment is a ghastly unreported story, but the responsibility the NFL players union abdicated should be a worse one. In every other sport, contracts are fully guaranteed. The NFL is as popular and successful financially as all of those other disciplines combined. You can feel that the particulars of this absurd situation are toned down because of HBO’s pre-existing relationship with the NFL, but Ballers highlights some of these wretched moments despite that.
The most depressing moments in Ballers are more subtle. Strasmore’s girlfriend Stephanie (Taylor Cole) barely ever sees him and the two have intercourse even less. Strasmore has no love in his life, and it is unclear whether or not Strasmore is even capable of intercourse given the amount of painkillers he subsists on. The Rock seems so sad now.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.