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'Ballers' review: Dwayne Johnson is on the money

Dwayne Johnson, left, and Arielle Kebbel in a

Dwayne Johnson, left, and Arielle Kebbel in a scene from Episode 3 of the new HBO series "Ballers." Photo Credit: HBO

THE SHOW "Ballers"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday night at 10 on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Former superstar Spencer Strassmore (Dwayne Johnson) is out of football and in an office -- a "financial services" one, where his obnoxious boss (Rob Corddry) demands that he "monetize" his old football relationships. Under the hot Miami sun, Spence gets to work on Vern (Donovan W. Carter), another up-and-coming star, and wide receiver Ricky Jarrett (John David Washington). Monetizing--investing their money--isn't as easy as it looks with these guys.

MY SAY A "baller" is a professional ballplayer, but in recent years, street slang hijacked the term to essentially mean a thug who scored financially. Obviously, this new HBO series -- part comedy, part sociology, part send-up -- wants to embrace both meanings. Some of these ballers are up-from-the-street man-children, still figuring out what to do with their score.

At the heart of their quest of discovery, and at the heart of the series, is Spencer, who's on his own personal quest, too: Figuring out what all this nonsense means anyway.

"Ballers" is a terrific new series with an excellent -- and remarkably, largely unknown (except for Johnson) -- cast that flows off the screen as effortlessly as a slick downfield route. The language is coarse, sexual situations (how shall I put this delicately?) are exotic, but "Ballers" also defuses both initial resistance and understandable repugnance with an easy charm -- especially Johnson's characteristic charm offensive. The guy is tailored to both role and bespoke suit (tightfitting ones) just about perfectly.

And admittedly, I am biased: A core character named "Vern," about whom characters say stuff like, "You know, I love Vern . . . ?"

What's not to like there?

But is this series for you? Certainly not all of you. The language alone may be the deal-breaker, while the sexual objectification of women is appalling -- possibly an accurate reflection of some parts of the "baller" culture, but appalling nonetheless.

Instead, "Ballers" is for those who cherished the great Ted Kotcheff-directed movie "North Dallas Forty," or Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," or even "Jerry McGuire."

And conspicuously -- at times too conspicuously -- it's for those who cherished "Entourage." The same strut and swagger is here, except "Ballers" feels smarter and more clear-eyed about the dangers of this culture, in ways "Entourage" never did.



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