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Mr. Bryant's opus: A review of Kobe's 'Muse'

Bryant's documentary has a sleek cinematic design, but does it move the needle on his legacy?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Even setting aside the widespread Y2K panic and peculiar proliferation of "millionaire" game shows, 1999 was .... a strange time. Wearing yellow Oakley sunglasses was considered a good fashion choice, visors were cool, and the kinetic anger of Limp Bizkit invaded the living rooms of many a pre-teen as the band enjoyed a degree of popularity thankfully not seen before or since by any remnant of the nu metal sub-genre of rock. And yet, tucked into the backdrop of the Twirl-O-Paint portrait of American pop culture at the turn of the millennium were a few gems that seemed to transcend their tackier surroundings. The Blair Witch Project popularized the found-footage genre, The Sopranos came on the air, and director Sam Mendes crafted critically acclaimed Oscar magnet, American Beauty.

On its surface, Mendes' film is, well, a beauty; Kevin Spacey gives a typically powerful performance, the unique cinematography provides us with the iconic image of Mena Suvari lying nude on bed of rose petals, and the surprising depth of Chris Cooper's seemingly straightlaced character makes for one of the more poignant final scenes you'll find in any movie. Yet, in spite of all its attractive visual and dramatic qualities, I always found myself asking the same question, "What is this movie actually about?" Whenever a film attributes undue significance to the sight of a floating plastic bag or inserts a line like "[I]t's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world" into its closing monologue, it's hard not to wonder if maybe the movie's ideology is getting a bit too big for its britches; eschewing natural depth in favor of broad, overreaching statements that actually betray an unintended hollowness.

A week or so after viewing Kobe Bryant's Muse, a recently aired Showtime documentary chronicling various aspects of the Laker icon's  personal journey from unheralded Italian import to surefire Hall of Famer, I've come to the realization that Kobe's film engenders a similar internal struggle when trying to formulate an opinion or identify thematic arcs. Before I go any further, let me just point out that my chops as a film critic are about as amateur as they come. I've seen Dumb and Dumber 37 times and counting, I'll watch Black Sheep any time it's on TV (though I much prefer Tommy Boy), and I speak fluent Simpsons. Having said that, after watching Kobe's documentary, though I didn't have the same issue with it as I did with American Beauty specifically, I noticed a similar mental logjam when trying to figure out, simply, did I like this movie?

Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Not unlike the redeeming aspects of American Beauty, Muse is extremely pleasing on a visual level. Kobe and director Gotham Chopra team up to put together a really well done, aesthetically pleasing documentary. The style and tone throughout the film make for a very viscerally satisfying experience as the action oscillates between on-court theatrics and minimalistic shots of Kobe speaking to the camera alone in a dimly lit room. The basketball portion of the documentary certainly checks off all the boxes that make for a compelling watch: grainy archival footage of Kobe in his high school and early pro years, the airballs against Utah, the lob to Shaq, the redemptive roller coaster ride of 2008-2010 and of course, clips from that fateful night against Golden State almost 2 years ago. There's also some yet-unseen footage of Kobe as a young boy in Italy as well as some great shots of his dad, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant doing work at the pro level.

The emotion and sentiment throughout the documentary are unmistakably real

Also interspersed throughout the film are clips of Kobe at various stages of his rehab from his Achilles injury. The scenes are shot in black and white and are very sincere in their emotion and austerity; one of the more powerful moments occurring when Kobe's surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, removes the cast and bandages from Bryant's foot, revealing a pristine, linear scar. ElAttrache and Lakers minority owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong smile at each other and remark at how good it looks, echoing the word "beautiful" back and forth to one another no less than 4 times in describing Kobe's heel. Soon-Shiong looks almost giddy when Kobe successfully completes a few simple movements with his foot that would've been impossible only 10 days earlier. The doctors' joy is surprisingly powerful -- here are two world-renowned surgeons, essentially doing the medical equivalent of a couple of dudes high-fiving over a perfectly grilled ribeye. Moments like this contrast interestingly with the looming challenges and quieter moments of Kobe's rehab as he performs countless calf raises and meticulously picks up metal balls with his toes with little to no emotion evident, and not so much as an iPod to distract him from the monotony.

While the emotion and sentiment throughout the documentary are unmistakably real, it's easy to see how a Bryant critic could come away feeling that the entire project was a bit on the self-serving side. Not necessarily in the propagandistic sense that might inspire viewers to erect 60 foot statues of their dear leader, but self-serving nonetheless. Though of course you wouldn't expect a documentary that Kobe had such a big hand in to be a smear campaign against his character, it does seem that he may have missed an opportunity to ingratiate himself to those who might not have such a rosy view of him or his career. While some might claim that Kobe couldn't care less about that, I'd argue that the exact opposite is true and in that fact lies a compelling contradiction between Kobe's actual personality and the mythos surrounding it.

Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In keeping with a subtle, yet steady trajectory over the last several years, Kobe's documentary mirrors an effort to be relatable by showing his humanistic side through an increase in candor and a sort of curated transparency. While I certainly don't claim to be the first person to examine this idea, it was interesting to see it so plainly on display in the film. The whole tenor of the movie is somehow calculated, yet completely honest. While those may seem like diametrically opposite concepts, they both linger in the atmosphere throughout the entire 84-minute running time.

In Muse, many of the qualities that have shaped the polarizing nature of Kobe's legacy simultaneously occupy the same space. Bryant refrains from delving much into various aspects of his career that don't fit in with the narrative arc on display in the film; notably his rocky relationships with Shaq, Dwight or Phil Jackson ('99-'04 version). There is also his cursory treatment of the events leading up to and surrounding his 2003 legal issues. Just to be clear, I'm not critiquing Kobe's choice to leave out any such details, as I don't think I have the right to say he should or shouldn't discuss what happened in Colorado. However, these omissions do stand as the most powerful example of that concept of complete honesty and conscious calculation paradoxically coexisting.

Photo credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The moments in which Kobe discusses his struggles in the 2003-04 season perfectly encapsulate many of the reasons people have always gravitated so strongly to opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to Kobe Bryant the person. While someone who dislikes Kobe might point to how he doesn't directly address the fact that he was charged with sexual assault, in that same breath, it would be impossible to deny the authenticity of the regret and guilt he expresses when discussing his fear that his wife might leave him, or the possible role all the unnecessary stress played in her having a miscarriage.

Ultimately, although it's obvious to say, it's Kobe's documentary, and anyone's opinion about what should or shouldn't have been in it is ultimately going to end up in a heap on the cutting room floor along with all of the things he didn't touch on. People may not like the fact that Kobe essentially waved off one more pick and cleared out to go one-on-one instead of putting the hours of unseen testimony from other figures in his life into the final product. That's ok, because, as Bryant says:

It's not about you. It's not about anybody else. You're not making me go. I'm driving this thing and you just so happen to be the person in the way that may be demolished in the process

While that quote may seem like fodder for the back of a T-shirt or billboard, hearing Kobe actually speak the words on film lends an authenticity to them that wouldn't have otherwise existed. There's always been a sort of reverence surrounding the discussion of Kobe's legendary work ethic, sometimes to the point of being overblown; yet, it's just another instance in which mythology and reality synchronize, serving only to deepen the lore. When reading a quote about how, at an early stage of his career, Kobe thought that someone being better than him was literally an impossibility, it's hard not to roll your eyes a bit. But seeing him actually say it, hearing him place deliberate emphasis on his enunciation when describing his ethos and seeing his face betray a level of burning passion that couldn't possibly come off as genuine on anyone else makes it extremely difficult to find fault in Kobe's methods.

It's unlikely that a casual fan with a preformed opinion of Kobe is going to change his or her mind after viewing his documentary, and it would be hard to blame anyone for taking such a stance. The duality of his measured honesty too easily lends itself to either side of the aisle for the movie alone to sway anyone currently residing on either polar end of the Kobe Bryant love-hate spectrum. However, in spite of the difficulty I had in coming to terms with the fact that I was somewhat disappointed by Kobe's film itself, I actually found myself with a greater appreciation and empathy for him as a person. While Kobe's expletive-laden post game pressers and prickly on-court demeanor paint the image of someone who doesn't care what people think, the public attempt to show us a more empathetic side of himself suggests otherwise. Ultimately, the simple fact that Kobe has made such a conscious effort of late to reshape how he is perceived shows a vulnerability that no amount of somber black and white film could ever convey.