Costner turns the schmaltz to eleven

The sports movie. Few film genres see such a dizzying variance in ambition or quality. Anyone who has seen the likes of Necessary Roughness (Scott Bakula/ Kathy Ireland vehicle – need I say more?) has plumbed the depths. Most sports movies could be considered either predecessors or descendants of this tale of college football woe, which attempts to marry the wackiness of a few gridiron misfits with the “excitement” of a live football game. Not all football movies are this poor, or even most sports movies for that matter, yet the dilemma remains the same: translating sport and its visceral excitement to the big screen and constructing some sort of story out of it.

This is quite a difficult task. Few films of this genre even scrape the ceiling of the basement of quality or even that of mass acceptance with their helmeted heads. One recurrence in the history of the American sports movie, however, has been the nagging insistence of writers and directors that sports and films about them have something deeply profound to say about our American existence, which is basically a true statement. Sport has embedded itself so deeply into the American psyche as to become second nature. It is unavoidable and essential to our existence- oh, but the films about it usually aren’t.

There is one American sport that looms ominously over all others. It’s been played since the Civil War – the British claim to have invented it, although they’re obviously wrong. Welcome, baseball! Baseball, hopelessly clichéd as “the American Pastime,” was vital back in the days when we Americans had other pastimes besides watching Married With Children and Internet porn. Baseball, the true Athena of American Sport, has spawned the greatest myths, its playing mechanics at the highest level still a bafflement to most who don’t participate in it themselves. Films about baseball then justifiably occupy a hallowed space in our culture – baseball’s pace and tension, not to mention its particularly long season and massive structure, make it a captivating spectacle, surely fertile ground for a deconstruction of the American psyche. Anyone who has seen Bull Durham (the greatest sports movie ever made, let alone baseball) knows the heights the baseball movie can reach. It unveils minor league baseball, with its array of eccentric characters and aura of hopelessness, as a grand and humorous metaphor for life, love, sex and the American dream. Field of Dreams offers a look at the reconciliation of a father and son, played out on the nostalgic backdrop of an Iowa cornfield, the 1960’s and, oh yeah, a baseball diamond and its mysterious visitors. Baseball occupies a special place in many American hearts, whether that be through catches with your dad, or while experiencing the glory of Fenway Park from the bleachers.

Anyone who has seen either Bull Durham or Field of Dreams also noticed that they star one Kevin Costner, last seen with Robin Wright sailing yachts and placing messages in bottles and whatnot. You can forget all that, though, for this is Kevin’s bread and butter, or so he would have you think. You see, Kev is the true American baseball hero – he just looks suspiciously like a middle-aged Hollywood star, grumbling and groaning his way through a film which is essentially nothing more than a stock soap-opera/melodrama draped in the regal robes of Major League Baseball.

Which brings me to said film, For the Love of the Game. Costner stars as Billy Chapel, an aging hurler in the twilight of a brilliant 19-year career, facing a change in ownership of his beloved Detroit Tigers, and penciled in to start what is for the beleaguered Tigers a meaningless game against the playoff-bound Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The new owners want to trade Chapel, while Billy can’t conceive of leaving the Tigers, his first and only team and love.

To top it all off, Billy’s longtime girlfriend Jean Aubrey (Kelly Preston) has just stood him up for dinner the night before in his spacious penthouse suite, leaving him to drink himself into a stupor and sulk. What happens next? Billy only begins to pitch the finest game of his career against the formidable Yanks, and we the audience embark on a journey through the last five years of Billy’s life, focusing on the similarities between the game, the career, and the relationship, with all their ups, downs, surprises and varying degrees of discomfort.

To say that baseball is the saving grace of the sports movie is no understatement- it certainly is the saving grace of this film. Director Sam Raimi, the man behind the genius low-budge horror film Evil Dead, is wandering worryingly into Nora Ephron/Cameron Crowe territory here. For the Love could just as well be Sleepless in Seattle or Jerry Maguire or god-knows-what. You’ve seen all these neuroses and romantic machinations in a Hollywood film before. Billy is ultimately a likeable character, but he never really transcends his scruffy dopiness the way he should. You don’t really feel all that sorry for him, as he really doesn’t act like he cares all that much. Much of this can be chalked up to Costner’s performance, which hardly merits much praise.

The game is Billy’s surrogate love, but, oh, its not really his true love, because all pitchers get old, throw out their arms, and are sent packing, at which point they realize that they wish they had a family. I think Bio-Dome made as interesting a point. That having been said, one can still appreciate the wonder and magnetism of the game of baseball and its pull on Billy. The game sequences are surprisingly convincing and the characterizations well done. The film might also function as an homage to the grandeur of Yankee Stadium, with broad sweeping shots of the outside, the bleachers and most of all, the fans, the life-blood of the organization with their absolutely fanatical devotion to the team. They don’t curse enough, though.

Ultimately, there’s a lot about this movie that you probably won’t like – it’s unoriginal, tepid and basically strained melodrama. It’s got baseball, though, and by process of association it hopes the glory and profundity of the Great Baseball Movie will somehow rub off on it. Sorry guys, maybe next time.

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