Kevin Costner continues to ameliorate the loss of prestige he suffered with the debacle of Waterworld and The Postman by playing it formulaically safe. For Love of the Game adds little new color to his actors palette and, like even his best vehicles, seems at times a bit slow and obvious. But the stars unabashed candor in discussing his persona and career in recent interviews is not only disarming, but its simplicity also reveals a shrewdness for image marketing that any producer could envy. Costner says he knows that he works best in movies that are essentially entertainment with at least some added capacity for moving an audience. The elements that show Kevin Costner to good advantage in For Love of the Game are the same combination that produced his other most appealing successes (Bull Durham, A Perfect World, Tin Cup): (1) a role that physically suits him, (2) an interesting co-star, and (3) a script that evokes imperfect humanity from him rather than sanctimonious, sentimental platitudes.
Continuing a logical procession from the young hothead of Bull Durham to the late-thirtyish seediness of the golfer in Tin Cup, Costner now plays Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old star pitcher for Detroit whose identity ends up riding heavily on one game against the Yankees. Costner is in good shape, and he has just the right gait and midriff heft to suggest the particular physical attributes of a mound veteran approaching middle life. Chapel has sustained injuries, one severe, in his 21-year career; hes the athletic star who has begun to look just as at home, if not more so, in his Porsche and loose-structure designer sports jackets as he does sweating through the last three innings. The problem is, of course, that baseball is his life and his passion. How will he know who he is if he stops doing it? Director Sam Raimi plays to another Costner strength simply by keeping the camera on him in tight shots and close-ups: his hair may be thinning to a degree that could wreck a lesser stars career, but Costners face remains one of the most camera-friendly in the business. One is aware in For Love of the Game that, as in the tradition of the great movie stars, Costners features arrest attention. His strongest suit as a screen persona is the visual synergy of his aw-shucks average-guyness with the dazzle of glamour that lurks around the sensuous eyes and mouth.
In the films flashback structure, Kelly Preston plays Jane Aubrey, Billys on-again, off-again girlfriend of the past five years. A lovely magazine writer who lives with her adolescent daughter in New York, Jane may be Billys last chance to translate his long-running stint as a professional athlete and celebrity into the rest of his life as a man. Preston has to cope with the real weaknesses of Dana Stevens script -- Janes characterization is, at times, insipid. The meeting-cute scene is downright tiresome, and some of her girly dialogue sounds like an Apartment 3-G comic strip from 1959 rather than that of the bright and independent woman she is intended to be. It is a testament to her growth as an actor -- this is her most interesting work in quite awhile -- that Preston not only holds her own with Costner, but she also is largely responsible for some of the films more genuinely affecting scenes.
Although he reigns as a chieftain in Americas favorite pastime, Billy Chapel is not a larger-than-life hero and has no interest in being so. He is aware of his feet of clay off the diamond, especially in building meaningful relationships. At what may be the most crucial moment of his career, he modestly asks that if God can help alleviate the pain in his arm for 10 minutes he would be appreciative, adding You know Ive never asked you to involve yourself in a baseball game -- youve got more important things to do. (Its a refreshing moment, a far cry from some of todays celebrities who lack that sense of proportion.) Costner does a good job of letting us see the less-appealing aspects of Chapel -- his self-involvement, his moodiness, his narrow focus -- which, in turn, helps to emphasize not only whats at stake emotionally with Jane but whats at stake with his character, and his soul, as well.
With his renewed box-office and industry clout, Costner may again from time to time risk departures from his norm -- working for off-center directors, or with adventurous scripts, or unexpected roles. But for now, like Billy Chapel, he seems intent on ensuring, over the long haul, his place among the icons he emulates. In Costners case, those are Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and most importantly, Gary Cooper. With his highly conscious manipulation of images of roguish American heroes, Costner seems likely to achieve his goal.