“Kobe Doin’ Work” – 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Review

The title could not state it any better. Spike Lee’s documentary on Kobe Bryant details—from pre-game start to post-game finish—a typical workday of the L.A. Lakers’ star player. In this case, the day is Apr. 13, 2008, the setting is the Staples Center and the opposing team is the San Antonio Spurs. At stake are the top spot in the Western Conference, home advantage throughout the NBA Playoffs, and M.V.P. honors for Bryant.

Unlike Adam Yauch’s “Gunnin’ for That No. 1 Spot” – a 2008 Tribeca Film Festival selection which profiled talented high school basketball players as part of a larger-than-life recruitment engine – “Kobe Doin’ Work” brings the perceived glamour of pro ball down to a workmanlike science, nearly to the point of monotony. For fans of basketball and especially fans of Bryant, it’s a potential treat. Almost entirely narrated by Bryant days after dropping 61 points on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in February, he vividly dissects shots, calls and plays long after the documented game is over. While the game footage—which is captured by 30 on-court cameras—isn’t vastly different from live broadcast footage, the sounds are amplified, particularly the voices of the players on the court.

“I don’t think a lot of fans understand the amount of communication and execution that goes into the game of basketball – at least on our team,” Bryant says in his voiceover. “[But] this is funny watching this because I didn’t realize I talk that damn much!”

And in a way, that’s what drags the film down. After all, Bryant’s public image on and off the court – adultery charges, accusations of refusing to be a team player and so on – casts the documentary as a somewhat forced re-branding exercise. Kobe, devoted family man? There are his daughters in the crowd holding signs, and again getting into the car after the game with him and his wife in the movie’s parting shot. Kobe, appreciative teammate? He frequently speaks highly of his teammates’ on-court support, in particular of Pau Gasol, who he dubbed as a “high-IQ basketball player.” Kobe, multi-linguist and cerebral intellectual? True, we know of his ability to speak Italian – there are some shots of his ribbing teammate Sasha Vujacic – but at times his detailed commentary borders on tedium.

Then, of course, it is one thing to watch the game in real time, but quite another when set in the context of looking back on a league M.V.P.’s season. After all, that season concluded with Bryant’s team losing the NBA Finals in spectacular fashion to the Boston Celtics. Bryant does briefly address that series on the whole, but only with less than 12 minutes to go in the film. His remarks of being “pleased with the way we played” despite losing the title is an odd juxtaposition to the joyous conclusion of the Spurs game.

Following its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Kobe Doin’ Work” will air May 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.