As the Worm turns

Dennis Rodman's life is an open book--it's just not clear at this point how many people are left who care to read it. Rodman's arrogance is unparalleled and far too well documented: He's the, um, author of two autobiographies; he briefly had his own show on MTV, if you call letting yourself be interviewed as you drive around in limos a show; and he starred in a movie (Double Team) Brian Bosworth would have turned down a decade ago. The man's a rampaging ego, a joke and a talent, the enigma who will never be A Hero--which is fine with him.

Or is it? If nothing else, Bad As I Wanna Be, the made-for-ABC movie that airs Sunday night, leaves you with the impression that Rodman actually does want to be respected, taken seriously, even liked. It's a damned funny movie that tries its hardest to be taken seriously--a weepy formula film about a poor kid who scrabbles his way to the top, fighting racist rednecks and demanding coaches and Madonna along the way. It strips away the tattoos and the hair dye and tries to get to the troubled man underneath the clown makeup--the only problem is, the clown's such a crybaby he makes you laugh even harder. And the basketball sequences are so godawful, Bad As I Wanna Be makes The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh seem like a documentary; they're all filmed in what looks like a smoky, half-filled high school gym, and Rodman's the only guy who ever gets the ball--not bad for a man who's there to rebound.

Like his buddy and role model Howard Stern's Private Parts, Bad is an attempt to recreate the self-made myth, to tell only the good parts of the bad boy's story. And in doing so, it turns an intriguing tale into sterile fiction; to make himself out to be a misunderstood martyr with a softie's heart, Rodman sacrifices the very things that make his story one worth telling. His eccentricities are buried beneath so much hokum.

The movie, directed by Jean De Segonzac (who helmed several episodes of Homicide and Oz), begins with Rodman himself addressing the camera: "Do I scare you?" he asks, smirking beneath golden wigs and neon makeup, frolicking on a silken bed with obscured women. He then proceeds to tell his life's story in flashback, beginning in the projects of Oak Cliff. The first we see of the young Dennis (played by Dwayne Adway), he's being chased by Dallas cops--why, we have no idea. The setup is to prove Rodman was one step away from a life of crime--after all, he didn't play ball till college, growing nine inches after graduating from South Oak Cliff High. But Adway's too clean-cut to pass for trouble; from the get-go, he makes a poor stand-in for the real thing, who shows up at various points to punctuate points the film can't make on its own.

Bad is one of those biopics that play like pure fiction. Its every move rings false, from Rodman's early "homeless" days (his mother banishes him from the house after an arrest for stealing watches at D/FW Airport) to the racist epithets he endures during his college days (the very moment he steps off the bus in Durant, Oklahoma, he's told to "go back to Africa") to the homilies he learns from his Southeastern Oklahoma State coach (played by Daniel Hugh Kelly) and James Rich (John Terry), the head of the white family that "adopts" him during his tenure in Oklahoma.

You know his story even if you've never heard it: Poor black kid from the projects escapes through basketball; he falls in with a white family that loves him despite his color; he goes on to find fame and fortune in the NBA; he gets married, has a kid, then gets divorced; then winds up screwing Madonna. Every episode in Rodman's life seems lifted from the Hollywood handbook. It's a wonder how a life so large can so easily be reduced to such cliche.

There are no revelations here, only storybook aphorisms. Even his transformation from promising NBA star (with the world-champ Detroit Pistons) to larger-than-life hellion seems phony. Here, he blames it on his ex-wife's refusal to let him visit his daughter. His rage transforms him into a man unconcerned with image; the silk-and-sulk image he would take on, he insists, "is the real me." But it's all so pathetic: De Segonzac and writers John Miglis and Gar Haywood try to convince us that Rodman's image comes from a deep-rooted unhappiness, that the act is just that. It's all so unconvincing, the crude reality sandblasted away to reveal absolutely nothing underneath.

There's nothing outrageous about Bad: The sequences with Madonna (Terumi Matthews, who looks more like someone who took a wrong turn off the Jersey Turnpike) are flat and dull; the film portrays their relationship as star-crossed, as tired comedy. For a film that should have been played for high camp, it doesn't for one second beat watching even a bad Bulls game on TV.

Bad As I Wanna Be.
Directed by Jean De Segonzac. Written by John Miglis and Gar Haywood; based on the book by Dennis Rodman and Tim Keown. Starring Dwayne Adway, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Dee Wallace Stone, and John Terry. Airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on WFAA-Channel 8.

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