The Total Experience
Chloe Lizotte on the whirlwind of 80 for Brady, everyday spectatorship, fandom, and complicated catharses

The online trailer for 80 for Brady begins with its stars—Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, and Lily Tomlin—introducing themselves like football players in ESPN bumpers; they appear boxed into CGI football jumbotrons while wearing bedazzled New England Patriots merch. These lauded performers play four diehard fans of quarterback Tom Brady (though Fonda’s character holds a bound volume of her own erotica about tight end Rob Gronkowski); the phrase “based on a true story” never appears, but the film was inspired by a real-life octogenarian viewing club. It’s 2017, and the group is about to embark on an epic journey to Houston to watch their boy win the Super Bowl. Again: Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, and Lily Tomlin. With its slow-motion walks and a groaner where Field’s character calls her fanny pack a “strap-on,” the trailer would almost be banal if not for its principal cast, if not for their fixation on Brady and the Patriots, and if not for the unexplained presence of Guy Fieri, emceeing a hot-wing-eating contest and haunting Moreno’s drug-induced hallucinations.

These “ifs” are doing a lot of work: they’re so specific, so improbable. Even earnest defenders of these actors’ legacies must be a little curious; even if “hot mess” trailers are rarely more than smoke-and-mirrors cash grabs—I’m looking at you, Book Club—this one feels extreme. Several reviews of 80 for Brady attend immediately to the ad: the headline of the L.A. Times review is “Super Bowl Comedy Rallies from Bad Trailer.” In a more critical piece on the film for Uproxx, Vince Mancini spends a few paragraphs musing on the trailer’s ambiguous target audience, then takes the film to task for shameless NFL product placement and slapdash editing, revealing that some actors were rarely in the same place at the same time. A news post about the trailer by James Dator of SB Nation stands apart for its honesty:

This movie is an absolute enigma. I don’t know why it was made. I’m not 100 percent sure who it’s supposed to appeal to. I cannot believe this is coming to theaters and not directly to a streaming service—I also don’t care. I want to see this because I need to see this.

Dator is getting somewhere compelling: I can’t believe, I don’t care, I want, I need. The obvious questions are less productive. Asking why these four women would star in this film is a dead end; it reminds me of Robert De Niro grumbling that portraying the eponymous Dirty Grandpa just seemed like fun, as well as Al Pacino’s late-career-best Dunkaccino dance routine in Jack and Jill—why not? Pondering 80 for Brady’s role in its namesake’s retirement myth also seems banal; Brady may have produced the film, but the movie transcends and subsumes him in crucial ways. The extratextual enigmas of 80 for Brady are far more interesting—they’re what drew me to the theater in the first place. I found myself reflecting on how much a work of art can truly be transformed by the audience as it travels, the way that cultural artifacts are packaged and sold as real-world experiences. And while watching these world-famous women pantomime Brady fandom, I thought, bizarrely, of people I knew, wrapped up in different fascinations; I wondered about the importance of spectatorship to everyday life.

As Dator asks: why do we want—need—to watch anything?

***

Each Sunday night before kickoff, each member of 80 for Brady’s foursome must complete a specific task. Lou (Tomlin) has to spill a bowl of chips onto her living room floor. Betty (Field) has to stand on a small stepladder and mime changing a lightbulb. Trish (Fonda) has to be seated at the dining room table, reading a book. And Maura (Moreno) has to be sipping tea, curled up in an armchair.

This superstition is a prerequisite for Tom Brady to lead the Patriots to victory: if Bill Belichick is wearing a cutoff sweatshirt, Lou will be spilling the chips. This ritual also transports the group back to the first Patriots game they ever watched. Two years earlier, when Lou was recovering from chemotherapy and her friends came over to keep her company, the remote fatefully broke while the TV was tuned to Sunday Night Football. The camera lingered on Brady, and the quartet was immediately taken with this youthful, charisma-free animatron. Chips spilled; lightbulb mid-change; book read; tea sipped. The Patriots won, but the ritual is more important: it symbolizes the time they spend together, the time they still can spend together with Lou.

So far, so logical, but one takeaway is easy to overlook: friendship can be forged, sustained, and maintained through mediating experiences. In a CBS Sunday Morning story about the film, Fonda opines on how female friendships differ from male friendships: “You guys sit side-by-side and you watch sports, or cars, or women,” she says. “Women sit facing each other, eye to eye, and they say, ‘I’m in trouble, I need you, can you help me?’ We’re not afraid of being vulnerable.” It sounds good because Fonda is saying it, but what 80 for Brady actually proposes is a blend of both: coming together to watch a sports game—or a concert, or a film—can cultivate mutual vulnerability, when a direct conversation would feel too garish or blunt. This group’s dream is to travel to the Super Bowl to watch it together.

And yet, this goal seems so frivolous when put into words—it’s something they can’t reveal to their children fretting over their health, or their spouses in need of handholding through their fifth decade in academia (imagine, if you will, Bob Balaban as a fragile MIT professor; this is Betty’s husband). The game symbolizes the indestructibility of their friendship and a brief, utopian escape from everyday life. Though a desire to compartmentalize can be unhealthy—for days, Lou avoids opening a letter from her cancer specialist, wary of a negative prognosis—the trip ultimately reinvigorates them to directly face their lives, allowing them to temporarily untether from social roles, health conditions, and significant others, which gives them a stronger sense of autonomy. Instead of preaching about why this matters, 80 for Brady focuses on what this allows the group to do and pursue.

When the club arrives in Houston, they have one free day before the big game—but they have no desire to sightsee. Their first stop is on the stadium grounds: the NFL Fan Experience, a popup museum with games, exhibits about football history, and, obviously, a gift shop. “There’s so much here to do!” Lou screams, as though a lucid dreamer in a sizzle reel. Almost immediately, she crushes a much younger guy at a “Hail Mary” challenge; any of the lazy “grandma” insults lobbed Lou’s way are forgettable amid the abrupt, Olympian surrealism of watching Lily Tomlin flawlessly complete at least a dozen passes in a rapid-fire montage . . . with help from Tom Brady, whom she hallucinates coaching her technique on a nearby TV (more on this later). Meanwhile, Trish discovers that her erotic novel, Between a Gronk and a Hard Place, is on sale here—the sales associate melts into a blubbering, starstruck mess as soon as Trish reveals her identity. Following the logic of fanfiction, Trish is immediately hustled to a nearby stage to read her book aloud to a rapt audience, and she meets her love interest (Harry Hamlin), a retired football player, while signing autographs.

The NFL Fan Experience exists. It costs $40 to enter the indoor exhibits, but the brand also encompasses a free outdoor festival; at this year’s Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona, there were live performances by Jimmy Eat World and Major Lazer. A version of the Experience in Times Square—now shuttered, but originally envisioned as a year-round museum—included a 4D film called Gameday, in which the seats, somehow, were to move to replicate the motion of famous plays. This is a revenue driver, eventizing Super Bowl weekend beyond a single game, but its appeal is more powerful. This year, Springfield, MO, local news network KY3 reported on isolated groups of Kansas City Chiefs fans who drove to Phoenix simply to go to the NFL Experience, sans Super Bowl tickets. The fans explain that they wanted to “feel the vibe” of the game-day environment, noting their surprise that there aren’t more Chiefs fans in Arizona to support the team. To many, splurging on tickets is unnecessary when there’s an expanded world outside of the stadium, and an audience who craves total immersion.

80 for Brady dwells in the participatory universe around football: the watch party, the Experience, Trish’s fanfiction, and a radio show called Pats Nation, from whom Lou claims to have scored Super Bowl tickets in a giveaway. We might be skeptical of the value of a community fostered by such a Disney World–esque carnival—a skepticism that’s especially healthy for film critics as they parse complex lattices of art, industry, and cliché. For a possible way forward, we might turn to Welsh academic Raymond Williams’s 1976 linguistic study Keywords, in which he details the history of the word “experience.” While subjective experience is often privileged in religious contexts—Williams cites Methodist “experience-meetings,” specifically—the more rational among us would interrogate the truth of that subjectivity, framing experience instead as “evidence of conditions or systems which by definition it itself cannot explain.” At the end of his entry, Williams is ambivalent. He suggests that parsing this duality is self-defeating: of course, experience is made possible by exterior circumstance and social context, but it is still defined by individual meaning, as potent as a religious awakening. “In the deepest sense of experience,” Williams writes, “all kinds of evidence and its consideration should be tried.”

***

The authorship of 80 for Brady takes some untangling. It was scripted by Booksmart cowriters Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins—though it seems as if director Kyle Marvin (producer and writer of the 2019 biking “dramedy” The Climb) would rather you attribute any and all success to his rewrites. The film’s Super Bowl plot is a fictional, movie-world gloss on a sweet, real-life story of five 80-plus women from North Attleborough, MA, who sustained seven decades of friendship through weekly appointments with Brady. One of these women, naturally, had a grandson based in Hollywood, who started pitching their story as IP. This caught Brady’s attention, and he signed on to develop the project, which must be why deflategate is never mentioned. According to CBS News, Brady has never arranged a meeting with the original “80 for Brady” ladies, apart from one impersonal-seeming video message. (Which is how he communicates with all of us now.)

In honor of the real women who inspired the film, let’s step back and consider what it means to watch sports every week. If you’re reading Reverse Shot, you’ve likely reflected on the experience of rewatching a film; the movie stays the same, but its resonance can vary depending on the viewer’s place in life. In football, the game is the unknown quantity—it could be a boring blowout, or a nail-biter victory or loss. What stays fixed, to a degree, is the weekly viewing experience. This raises the personal stakes; the players may be on the field, but the fans participate through regular support, which can encourage a disciplined, superstitious regimen, rewarded by catharsis (if we spill our chips, Brady will score a touchdown). Participation like this punctuates everyday monotony, and it can craft an identity. Kyle Thrash and Jenifer Westphal’s documentary Maybe This Year (2019) follows select superfans of the Philadelphia Eagles through the 2018 season, which culminated in their Super Bowl victory. It was unusual for the Eagles to dominate the season—the film’s working title was Maybe Next Year—so the fans click into especially high gear when their quarterback is injured and the outlook worsens. Cheering for the underdog endows the city with an identity, which takes on a more profound emotional valence in the course of turbulent daily life.

This catharsis can be complicated. Frederick Exley’s fictionalized memoir A Fan’s Notes (1968) is nominally about his life as an obsessive New York Giants superfan, but its real subject is his alienation from the American dream and descent into alcoholism. Football only reminds him of his shortcomings: his father was a football coach in upstate New York, and Exley was college classmates with star Giants player Frank Gifford, which kindled a lifelong obsession and inferiority complex. Still, Exley describes Gifford as his more successful “alter ego” and, with self-deprecating humor that might get lost out of context, evokes the participatory high of cheering him on: “I came … to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success. Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as him; the roar was not only a promise of my fame, it was its unequivocal assurance.”

Apart from hero worship, something elemental about the game of football gives Exley “the feeling of being alive”:

A man is asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it […] It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity—perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood.

Belonging, escape, the primal “force of a forgotten childhood”: broader than sports, such words evoke what it means to be an avid fan. Exley’s prose finds some parallels—and perhaps some histrionics—in the behavior Kaitlyn Tiffany observes in Everything I Need I Get from You (2022), a book narrating the rise of the online One Direction fan community. Germane to 80 for Brady is Tiffany’s discussion of meaningful participation in fandom, even when the property in question—a boy band—seems to epitomize juvenile commercialism. Tiffany examines actions that forge someone’s identity as a “fan” but still defy consumerist logic. She cites memes premised on esoteric in-jokes—which demand hours upon hours of YouTube rabbit holes to understand—and the fans’ ability to propel random album tracks to the top of the Billboard charts, often to deliberately spite the singles chosen by the group’s label and management. Tiffany, too, alights on an ambiguity between commercial and individual experience, pointing out that “fans intuitively understand the difference between the official product and their highly personal use of it.”

I was never a One Direction fan, but I came of age on the internet around the period Tiffany studies. It was Obama’s first term, and I was part of a cohort of American teenagers making memes about Blur bassist Alex James’s cheese farm (at this point, the group had been on hiatus for nearly a decade). Stuck in the ’90s as we were—probably as a convenient vacation from the present, a scene apart from Pitchfork-vetted U.S. bands—our ultimate fantasy was to go to as many Radiohead shows as possible on their 2012 tour…and by “go,” I mean queue up at 5 a.m. to secure a prime barrier spot. An acquaintance from this period recently followed Suede and the Manic Street Preachers across their North American reunion tour, and as she posted two weeks of signed set lists, I felt a familiar twinge of teenage excitement. Why did we all want—need—to do this? Set list variations aside, if the experience is basically the same every time, wouldn’t this cheapen the meaning of seeing that one concert? Not necessarily. There’s something intoxicating about escaping into a physical space where such devotion can exist and swallow you up. I recognize a far milder version of Exley’s novel here: a drive to reckon with the standards to which you hold yourself and numb yourself to the “real world.”

Tiffany discusses the stigmas associated with this kind of devotion; it’s easy to dismiss it as tween girl stuff. I’ve noticed this in the defensive poses against 80 for Brady. The idea of stanning Brady, specifically, is perhaps pretty humiliating, vehemently hated or mocked as he is in many quarters. But at least the film sets out to exploit its central conceit. This gives it more integrity than its closest point of comparison, Book Club, which reeks of a missed opportunity. It’s an afterthought that the eponymous club is reading 50 Shades of Gray—instead, the script is overstuffed with unforgivably lazy jokes about aging. In contrast, 80 for Brady is about the way that we make and transform our lives through culture—and the only way to deliver on that premise is to give its characters a plethora of cultural stuff to navigate and riff on. I would much rather watch Betty knock on the doors of a dozen porta-potties while asking “Mr. Fieri? Mr. Fieri? Mr. Fieri?” over and over again—absurd even if she were 20—than cringe through Book Club’s Candice Bergen signing up for Bumble.

***

If we’re going to consider every aspect of this experience, I have to explain, in the first person, what it was like to watch 80 for Brady. It was a Sunday afternoon at the Regal Essex Crossing in lower Manhattan, and the closed captions were activated, though they weren’t supposed to be. The theatrical setting immediately felt off, so visually similar to the way someone might idly stream TV while washing dishes—Debord and Brecht, meet Tubi. Soon after this novelty wore off, I cannot adequately describe the shockwave that rippled through the audience when a Tom Brady bobblehead came to life and, with a wink, encouraged Lou to buy Super Bowl tickets. Throughout the film, Lou has near-spiritual visions of Brady encouraging her to overcome all setbacks. Their bond is imaginary, but sacred, and then, incredibly, it is real. During the big game, Lou breaks into the control booth and gets ahold of the microphone that’s wired into Brady’s headset: in the film’s most striking perversion of the spectator-athlete relationship, she is the one who coaches Brady to victory when the Patriots lag 28-3 at halftime. Exley might even blush. Finally, after the game, Brady and Lou meet face-to-face. This looked like a touching heart-to-heart, but I have no idea what was said. Brady’s acting was so abysmal that he stoked mass hysteria in the room, which drowned out the words.

We’ve discussed the link between the fan and the IP, but these scenes were about the bond shared by members of an audience. It didn’t feel like we were laughing for the film to fail—quite the contrary. We were navigating the manner in which we were asked to surrender to disbelief, since 80 for Brady asked so much of us. Together, we transformed this bizarre text into something that belonged entirely to that afternoon; we delighted at cracks in the windscreen, rooted for sublime freakiness. When our heroes settle in to watch the game, Trish sums up the true impact of 80 for Brady: “This is the best sitting down has ever felt.”