For Love of the Game

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Sam Raimi

REVIEWED: 09-20-99

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 free speech.

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.

--Noel Murray

Full Length Reviews
For Love of the Game
For Love of the Game

Capsule Reviews
For Love of the Game
For Love of the Game

Other Films by Sam Raimi
A Simple Plan
Hercules: The Legendary Journey (tv)
The Quick and the Dead

Film Vault Suggested Links
Polish Wedding
The Story of Us
The Big Chill

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