"For Love of the Game"

If you're not as old as Kevin Costner's aging character at the beginning of this dreary baseball fable, you will be by the end.


Andrew O'Hehir
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

If President Clinton were constitutionally permitted to run for a third term, "For Love of the Game" would be his official campaign video. The syrupy, swampy saga about an aging big-league pitcher facing the end of the line and realizing he has mistreated the woman he loves almost parallels the Clinton story. It even has that familiar catch in its throat, that touch of spurious moisture around the eyes, that permanent tone of manly regret. While its autumnal blend of baseball and romance may well make it a successful date movie -- the audience I saw it with snuffled and cheered at appropriate intervals -- like the Clinton presidency itself, "For Love of the Game" has buried its good ideas beneath unforgivable fakery.

Although I've never been a big fan of Kevin Costner, I admit that he's very comfortable putting his sunburned, square-headed persona to work as Billy Chapel, a basically decent, profoundly inarticulate guy who's never had to face his own emotions. (Let's not even talk about the symbolism of his name, all right?) It's been 10 years since we saw Costner play ball in "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams," so in our imaginations, at least, he really is an elder statesman of the game. Billy is often genuinely likable, and I bet he'd be a great character in some other movie. But this movie is a dreary, humorless affair, with no real feeling for the rhythms of either baseball or love.
It serves up such a dense fable of baby-boom masculinity that you can virtually taste the Coors Light and Viagra seeping through the screen.

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Dana Stevens' screenplay (based on a novel by Michael Shaara) is sentimental and
plagued by implausibility, despite the presence of a handful of real-life ballplayers and announcers. For fans, the spectacle of longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully trying to breathe drama into the script's platitudes will be downright agonizing.

"For Love of the Game" opens in an elegiac October mood, with Basil Poledouris' score spitting up minor-key crescendos at the rate of two per minute, and then actually slows down. If you're not as old as Billy when the movie starts, you'll feel like you are by the time it's over.

Within the first few minutes, Mr. Wheeler (the fine Scottish actor Brian Cox), the lugubrious Detroit Tigers owner who is planning to sell the team and trade Billy, is already murmuring, "Everything's changed, Billy. The game stinks and I don't want to be a part of it anymore." Billy can't stay to talk; he has to rush out the door of the Waldorf-Astoria into Central Park to search for the woman he loves almost as much as baseball. He can only respond, in the first of his 50 or so emotion-choked lines, "The game doesn't stink, Mr. Wheeler. It's a great game."

So it goes. Billy and the Tigers are in New York to play the Yankees in the next-to-last game of the season. The Tigers have had another crappy year and are just playing out the string. But the manager wants
to start Billy, a onetime superstar who's now 40 and getting by on guile and a sore shoulder, in an effort to deny the Yankees a playoff berth. Realizing this is certainly his last game as a Tiger and perhaps the last of his career, Billy agrees, but only if his favorite catcher, a marginal player named Gus (John C. Reilly) who fusses over him like a mother hen, also gets to play. "Today I'm throwing hard, Gus," announces Billy. Gus smiles and says, "You and me -- one more time?" Billy answers, "Why not?"

But maybe Billy's really in the Big Apple because of Jane (Kelly Preston), the fashion journalist he ditched a few years back who's still on his mind. A bland and pretty but totally unspecific character who looks and acts as if she should co-host the "Today" show, Jane stands Billy up the night before the game, leaving him alone to drink minibar Scotch and ice with his elbow in the champagne bucket. As he takes the mound in Yankee Stadium, she's planning to fly to London for a new job. When he catches up with her on an empty softball field in Central Park on the day of the game -- the pathos! the significance! -- she sighs at him, "You don't need me. You and the ball and the diamond -- you're a perfectly beautiful thing." (That isn't Jane's worst howler, which comes when she cradles a souvenir baseball he has given her and coos, "I like to hold it in my hand, because I know somewhere you're doing the same thing.")

Her comment is of course trenchant. Preoccupied by his memories of Jane and the eclipse of his masculine powers, Billy strides onto the hallowed sward of Yankee Stadium and begins to pitch a perfect game (that is, a game in which no opposing runner reaches base -- a supreme, and exceedingly rare, accomplishment). Will he win, on the field and in his own heart? Will his beloved Gus get the game's key hit? Will Jane, watching the game with a pack of abusive Yankee fans in the airport lounge -- one of the film's few touches of realism -- actually catch her flight to Heathrow? These questions are really not worth asking. After all, this is a movie in which, when Billy gets in trouble, he visualizes playing catch with his dad in the backyard.

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Billy begins to pitch his masterpiece, much of it in the requisite super-slo-mo of all sports movies. During the game, director Sam Raimi -- a onetime cinema whiz kid best known for his "Evil Dead" indie horror films of the '80s -- mostly takes us away from the diamond into a retelling of Billy and Jane's relationship, staged as if it were a soft-rock video. I've rarely seen a screen couple with less heat or chemistry than the stoic Costner and the sunny Preston; they kiss like two strangers who've been told to squish their faces together as a form of exercise. Their acting, like the rest of the movie, happens in a baffling present tense. For all the tedious history we're subjected to, nothing we see on screen tells us anything about who these people really were in the 30-odd years before they met each other, and we wouldn't know the flashbacks were flashbacks if we weren't told.

Jena Malone provides a few good moments as Jane's precocious teenage daughter, who in very little screen time establishes a warm comic relationship with the permanently tongue-tied Billy. If the two of them had any sense, they'd head off together into some light stepdad comedy that would be a hell of a lot more fun than "For Love of the Game." But then, nobody involved here seems to evince much good sense or integrity, least of all Raimi, who matriculated onto the edges of mainstream film with the terrific thriller "A Simple Plan" before graduating to this saccharine mishmash. OK, Sam, maybe you believed you had to sell your soul to Hollywood. But did you have to sell it this cheap?


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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