The Vanity Biopic Takes Another Bizarre Turn In ‘Home Team,’ Netflix’s Kids Comedy About Saints Coach Sean Payton

Home Team, Netflix’s new release starring Kevin James as former Saints coach Sean Payton, is first and foremost an attempt at a family comedy, so before we get into the details I should note that my eight-year-old stepson declared, upon his second viewing in two days, “I love this movie.”

Certainly appealing to children is a low bar, but on balance Home Team does seem preferable to the rest of Netflix Kids’ programming, which consists mostly of old Disney and Nickelodeon sitcoms, in which the kids are all wearing five layers of neon clothing that looks fresh from a rack at Pac Sunwear, are styled within an inch of their lives, and shout-sing their lines as if they’re going to be beaten with bamboo canes if they fail to enunciate. I can sense when a 9-year-old has headshots. Few things more offputting. At the very least, the kids in Home Team look reasonably like actual kids, an achievement that sadly bears mention.

That being said, Home Team is one of the most conceptually-strange cinematic ventures I’ve ever seen, an image management exercise disguised as a scruffy kids comedy. The film opens with Sean Payton’s win in Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, the first and only for New Orleans, just five years after Hurricane Katrina. It made Payton such a hero that he released a book called Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life just four months later and it became a bestseller.

This, however, is just an opening frame for a movie that takes place entirely in 2012, the year that Payton was suspended for an entire season over his role in the Bountygate scandal. What is the Bountygate scandal, you ask? It was a story in which Payton and his assistant coaches were implicated in a plot to pay out bonuses for Saints players who injured opposing players. Even after two consecutive watches, my stepson was still pretty fuzzy on this point, and it’s hard to blame him. After a cursory five-second headline montage in the beginning, the most Home Team ever explains Bountygate is when Payton’s son Connor asks him why he got suspended. To which Payton responds, “It’s complicated, but I’m the head coach, so I have to take responsibility.”

Ah, well. Case closed!

But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What Home Team attempts is a Bad News Bears-esque comedy about the year Sean Payton became the offensive coordinator for the Liberty Christian Warriors, his son’s sixth-grade team in Argyle, Texas.

The Vanity Biopic industry has been exploding in recent years, beginning with subject-friendly depictions of musicians, which makes sense, given that it’s virtually impossible to make a musician biopic without permission to use the subject’s music — as 30 Rock so memorably skewered in “Jackie Jormp-Jomp.” The public first started to note this cozy subject-filmmaker relationship with Bohemian Rhapsody, which Rocketman managed to take to an even cozier level with a subject who was still alive. Sports got in on the action in The Last Dance, a Michael Jordan-sanctioned docuseries about the Michael Jordan-led Bulls of the ’90s, and took an even more propagandistic turn with King Richard, a fictional film “based-on-the-true-story” of Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) and his tennis-playing daughters — executive produced by the Williams family.

Home Team takes it even further, and weirder, positioning Sean Payton as the lead of a family comedy ostensibly about his biggest scandal, with a script co-written by Payton’s daughter’s boyfriend, Chris Titone. Home Team‘s other writer is Keith Blum, who has the same last name as Tait Blum, the actor who plays Payton’s son, though it’s unclear whether they’re related. It was produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company and directed by Charles and Daniel Kinnane, part of an eight-brother production team of former carpenters from Rhode Island who Kevin James had hired to make shorts for his YouTube channel.

That Hollywood is a nepotistic place and the NFL even more so isn’t news to many people, but even accepting that, the movie itself is a strange piece of content. Happy Madison movies have long consisted of rough frameworks that more or less write themselves (rich kid has to go back to school as an adult, hockey goon becomes a golf pro, etc) fleshed out with Sandler’s unmatched capacity for filling space and goofing around. Part of the charm is that they aren’t trying very hard. In that sense, Home Team isn’t much different. Hotshot coach Sean Payton gets suspended from the NFL for cutting corners, humbles himself by coaching his son’s team of sixth graders, and in the process repairs his relationship with his kids and learns a valuable lesson about not being such an asshole. Or so you would think.

What’s shocking about Home Team is the degree to which it avoids Payton having to do even the most cursory soul-searching. For the most part, it’s a movie about how Sean Payton is an awesome football genius who cucks anyone who gets in his way. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that it still manages to come off as a reasonably-charming family comedy despite having the id of a serial killer. In an age when one of the most popular forms of Super Bowl ad is a corporation apologizing for a scandal and promising to do better, maybe it was inevitable that we’d eventually get a disingenuous apology biopic.

Following his suspension, Payton, played adequately by replacement-level chubby comedy man Kevin James, who effortlessly evokes ex-jock on account of he is one (rare in the acting world), returns to his former home in Argyle, Texas. It’s there he meets his ex-wife’s new husband, Jamie, who, wouldn’t you know it, is a new age hippie with a top knot in his hair. He likes to meditate atop the coffee table amidst clouds of incense and is played, naturally, by Rob Schneider, one of many old friends Adam Sandler seems to be single-handedly keeping employed. In one of Home Team‘s signature gags, Jamie makes the team homemade “energy logs” with kale and tofu and they end up projectile vomiting, Family Guy-style.

The actress playing Payton’s ex-wife, Beth, meanwhile, has a face that positively screams “wife of someone in Happy Madison.” I would’ve bet my life on this while watching the movie, and when I looked her up afterward I discovered that she was Jackie Sandler, Adam’s wife. Madame Sandler, as it turns out, is also the sister of Home Team writer Chris Titone — the aforementioned boyfriend of Meghan Payton, Sean Payton’s daughter, and presumably the lynchpin of this entire enterprise.

Home Team has the plot developments you would imagine. Payton has to try to reconcile with a son who resents him for never being around, and turn around a struggling team without alienating its fanbase and coach. When Payton arrives, the Warriors have two coaches, the well-meaning nice guy head coach, Troy Lambert (Taylor Lautner), and his drunk comic relief assistant who has to ride his bike to games because of DUIs. This character is played by Kevin James’s brother, Gary Valentine, wearing a barely-trying fake mustache.

When Payton arrives, the townsfolk and even Troy want the bigshot Super Bowl man to get involved with the team, and maybe sprinkle some winner dust on their pitiable underdogs. Payton agrees to become the offensive coordinator over beers with Troy, and soon he’s revamping the offense, switching the star quarterback to running back, and eventually, after a phone call with ex-Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who seems to have agreed to be in this movie only if they could shoot his scene in his home office, even meddling in the defense.

There’s a natural expectation that Payton is going to go too far and have to learn that winning isn’t worth being such a prick. Which he does, but only barely. The angriest Troy Lambert ever gets about being coach-cucked is when he frowns a little (Lautner does a decent job looking like a Texas football coach, and his acting has improved some since his Twilight days, but he’s still not exactly Brando).

There is precisely one scene in which anyone pushes back on Payton’s new win-at-all-costs regime, taking place at halftime during the championship game, when Payton’s son Connor yells at him that he liked his team better before, winning or not. Payton’s realization that maybe he should be less of a dick is squeezed into one quarter of one football game, when he puts two benched players back in the game after benching him and lets their hapless kicker kick, even though it means a probable loss.

It’s a testament to the filmmaking that Home Team‘s ending manages to thread a tight needle between believable, novel, uplifting enough, and mildly comedic. What’s shocking about it is how little introspection and acceptance of responsibility are permitted in this era of image management biopic. Granted, the sports superstar autobiography has been a staple of bookstore shelves for probably 50 years, and few have expected to find genuine vulnerability in one (let alone the athlete actually writing it). Even so, Home Team is essentially the story of how football genius Sean Payton returned to a small town and big dicked everyone, proving why he was better than them in the first place. One of his most humbling moments comes when he has to pay the kooky clerk at the hotel where he’s staying to photocopy his hand-drawn playbook for him (the guy accidentally photocopies his bagel! ha ha ha). Imagine, not having someone happily do your copy work for free. Yes, he’s a long way from the Super Bowl now!

Home Team feels like an old feature I used to read in Sports Illustrated For Kids, “My Worst Day,” in which an athlete would explain how they felt on a day they notably failed. The articles were always about fumbling in a crucial moment or calling time out the team didn’t have, never point-shaving or domestic violence or taking out an entire bus full of disabled kids while driving drunk.

The movie’s most endearing aspect is Adam Sandler’s unwavering loyalty to his inner circle, keeping otherwise radioactive pals like Rob Schneider and Allen Covert gainfully employed, doling out roles to old buddies like Kevin James and newish ones like Taylor Lautner (who was in Grown Ups 2) alike, and giving a shot to other blue-collar aspiring artists from New England (Sandler himself grew up in New Hampshire) like the Kinnane Brothers.

Sean Payton may be the subject of Home Team, but Sandler is the hero, a mafia racket unto himself generously sharing the spotlight and the riches with all his buddies, his wife, his brother-in-law, and anyone else who manages to blunder their way into his good graces. God bless the Sand Man. If there’s a lesson in Home Team, it’s that if Adam Sandler likes you, you never have to work a day in your life.

‘Home Team’ is currently available on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.