For Love of the Game is being promoted as a Kevin Costner
baseball movie, a prospect meant to make both baseball fans and Costner
fans weak with rapture. The popular belief is that Costner has starred in
two of the best baseball movies of all time--Bull Durham and
Field of Dreams--but that faith is based on a false premise.
Certainly, Bull Durham is indispensable, with its vivid impressions
of minor-league ball and hot summer romance. But Field of Dreams
isn't really a baseball movie. It is rather desperate Americana, wherein
ex-hippies reconnect with a country they once spurned by summoning the
gauzy ideals that touch us shamelessly--fair play, family, farming, and
Baseball is a mere tool in Field of Dreams, pulled from a dusty
box to make the audience nostalgic for aimless July nights, not for the
specifics of the basket catch or the suicide squeeze. And baseball is a
tool again in For Love of the Game, although this time it's supposed
to make us nostalgic for Field of Dreams.
In this new film, Costner plays veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy
Chapel, a future Hall-of-Famer finishing his 18th season as the staff ace
and dreading a potential off-season trade to the Giants. It's hard to
imagine a modern major-leaguer, especially a twirler, playing with the same
team for two decades; it's even harder to believe that he wouldn't have a
no-trade clause in his contract. But we're myth-making here, so we'll
forgive the strained credulity, just as we'll forgive the sight of Vin
Scully working for Fox Sports--because who else would generate such poetic
play-by-play? We won't even ask why the Tigers are playing a rare one-game
series with the Yankees at the end of the season; we'll just assume they're
making up a rainout.
What's harder to understand is how a movie filled with men in baseball
uniforms could have so little to do with baseball. The gist of For Love
of the Game is that Costner's bland, good-guy hero stands on the mound
while dealing with the possible end of his career and the definite end of
his relationship with a magazine journalist (played by the always
forgettable Kelly Preston). As he reflects on his life, he starts
frustrating batters, who can't seem to reach base against him. In a fog,
Chapel looks up at the scoreboard in the seventh inning and sees a line of
zeros next to the word "Yankees." He's throwing a perfect game.
But every time the audience starts to get excited about the
mano-a-mano tussle between pitcher and hitter, the scene fades and
we're stuck in another dreary flashback pointing to what went wrong between
Chapel and his writer friend. If the flashbacks covered more of Chapel's
life and career, or if the romance between Costner and Preston were more
than warmed-over Jerry Maguire-style fumbling, the lengthy
distractions from the game might be bearable. Instead, Costner's character
remains nobly quiet, never contemplating his fame and how it might affect a
love affair. Meanwhile, Preston's character changes from scene to
scene--sometimes she's urbane, sometimes she's a flake, and she has a
daughter who appears only when convenient to the story.
For Love of the Game was directed by cult favorite Sam Raimi, who
last year made an assured step into the mainstream with the masterful A
Simple Plan. This time out, he seems lost, except in the kinetic
baseball scenes. Someone should set Raimi up with Daniel Okrent's fantastic
book Nine Innings, which details the meaning behind every pitch of
an otherwise meaningless 1981 Orioles-Brewers game. Raimi would dazzle, and
if Costner wanted a part, fine...he'd make a good Gorman Thomas.
For Love of the Game plays more like a Costner film than a Raimi
film, and reports from the field say that Costner gave Raimi extensive
suggestions, which may explain the punchless tedium that weighs down even
the film's few funny lines and warm moments. Or the fault may lie with
screenwriter Dana Stevens, a sometime actress who also wrote the sappy
City of Angels; here, she has taken a well-regarded novel by
Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Shaara (author of The Killer Angels)
and adapted away so much of its nuance that the very profession of its lead
character is practically irrelevant.
It's not as if every movie about a baseball player has to be confined to
the diamond, any more than a movie about a lawyer should stick to the
courtroom. But a character in a story should have a job for a
reason, and the reason for this character in this story should've
been obvious--to show the dichotomy between an athlete striving to be
perfect both on and off the field, though he has no real control over
either arena. What we get is another modern Hollywood romance between two
inarticulate professionals, with the occasional shot of Costner pounding
his glove to remind us of films and ideas that have touched us before.
Such a fat pitch, and such a weak swing.