Tuesday, October 20, 2015

One More Day Of Summer

Isolation. It’s something I think about, maybe more than I should. Maybe because it’s a feeling that too often I can’t quite shake as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing, what the next day is going to be. Sometimes that feeling stays with me deep into the night as I can’t sleep or early in the morning when I also can’t sleep staring at the ceiling, with an idea of where I’m going but a little scared that I’m really going nowhere at all.
Sam Raimi’s FOR LOVE OF THE GAME opened in September of ’99, less than a year after the release of his previous effort, the acclaimed A SIMPLE PLAN. The film has all the markings of an old-school movie star vehicle even though the star in question, Kevin Costner, seemed like he was nearing the end of that run during the period, with the dust of THE POSTMAN from a few years earlier still on him. The fall of ’99 was a memorable time for films—BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE LIMEY, FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS—but FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is almost insistently square in comparison as if part of the design was to try to emulate what a Douglas Sirk baseball picture starring Rock Hudson in 1958 might have been. It never comes close to being quite that extreme but there still isn’t a cynical bone in the entire film and considering it’s about a character who feels like he’s a relic of the past it maybe makes sense that it seems to belong in another time. It’s kind of forgotten by now, certainly when compared to the other Costner baseball films BULL DURHAM and FIELD OF DREAMS, but there’s an earnest spirit to it and it’s also certainly notable as another example of Sam Raimi testing himself as a director, pushing himself to do something different while he moved further away from horror films into the big leagues.
Veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is nearing a crossroads in his life, possibly nearing the end of his career. It’s the end of another disappointing season for the Tigers, the owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) is on the verge of selling the team and his girlfriend Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) has decided to take a job in London which will finally put an end to their rocky relationship. As he takes the mound for the last time that season, playing against the Yankees on their home turf, he begins to flashback to all the previous crossroads of his life, including the path his relationship with Jane has taken and how he’s gotten to the mound that day. Only as the game goes on he doesn’t notice right away that not a single Yankee has managed to get on base. There’s a recurring theme of endings throughout FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (Screenplay by Dana Stevens based on the novel by Michael Shaara), mentions of how summer is coming to a close and you’d better have that fun now while the sun is still up there. Watching the film now makes me think about my own baseball past since if you’d met me when I was a little kid that’s what I probably would have been talking about. I’m not sure when that went away—maybe somewhere around the 1981 strike and then I started paying attention to films instead. Sure, it takes me half a second to say yes when a certain friend with access to really good seats asks if I want to go see the Dodgers but as for actually following what’s happening during the season I’ve long since accepted that my interest has gone away. I wonder what happened to all my issues of Baseball Digest. Every spring I briefly think that maybe I’ll pay more attention that year, then I glance at the sports page maybe once and every September I realize that once again it didn’t happen. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is about the coming of autumn, about the realization that summer, in whatever form it takes, can’t go on forever and maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to be alone for the remainder of the journey. It’s maybe a little too old-fashioned, a little too stuffy and, at 137 minutes, it definitely takes its time. The baseball scenes in particular are extremely well-shot by Raimi and cinematographer John Bailey but it’s still hard not to think that the script needed another run through the typewriter to smooth over some issues—maybe it’s just old-fashioned enough that ‘typewriter’ is the right word to use.
The film is definitely a star vehicle with the goal of making Costner into as much of a Gary Cooper figure as possible, the one noble man in a cynical world. That’s maybe the smartest way to approach it and Raimi, filming his first movie in widescreen, uses the frame not to emphasize any visual trickery that you’d expect from him like POV shots of a baseball hurtling towards home plate, but to focus on the star’s place in that cynical world, a place that as the film begins he feels extremely left out of. The celebrity that comes from his fame, with autograph hounds sometimes lurking about, seems to make him feel that much more isolated from everyone else as if he doesn’t quite know what that makes him—maybe it’s as much of a metaphor for Costner’s own stardom in 1999. As a director Raimi is continuing to develop here, as he finds a middle ground between the visual madness of his early films and the low-key nature of A SIMPLE PLAN. Since the film is about Costner, not those fastballs, the camera stays on him, framing him in the most iconic way possible. And the star is up for it, there’s a confidence to his very presence, a character worn down by the end of his career but with enough awareness of who he is to know what he’s still capable of—interestingly, unlike BULL DURHAM or TIN CUP this film isn’t about a Costner character who has to face what it is to be a failure but a success who must face what he still has inside of him, if there’s even anything still there at all.
The film is entertaining and put together in a slick, big studio way with a swelling Basil Poledouris score at the right dramatic moments but still feels a little stilted, the flashback sequence as the game proceeds a little too calculated as it becomes clear the romance is going to have more importance than his baseball career. Something’s missing to make the story more resonant—some reports have Annette Bening apparently turning down the female lead in favor of AMERICAN BEAUTY; I doubt she regrets that choice but she would have given the film an extra sense of gravity that Kelly Preston doesn’t really provide. Everyone is so well dressed throughout that in my memory it winds up becoming, baseball scenes aside, a film about pretty people wearing a lot of sweaters set to the ember glow of sunset. Even the sets look immaculate as if the love scenes are being shot in a movie where Kevin Costner plays a movie star playing a baseball player. There’s an Adult Contemporary vibe similar to the THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo that opened the previous month back in ’99 but that movie had heat. In this case, the continuous onslaught of cover songs of familiar favorites by the likes of Lyle Lovett wind up making me think that my sister is going to enjoy this film more than I will. You can almost feel too much effort in trying to make some of the love story work, to make the relationship have more edges than are ever there but it’s really the expected developments—the meet cute, the daughter she didn’t tell him about, the big fight. It feels like the long dialogue scenes underwent multiple rewrites to shore up holes in the plot and Billy’s one instance of playing around made to seem as benign as possible, like if you weren’t paying close attention you may not realize what he’d done.
But just when I can feel the creakiness Raimi suddenly makes his presence known, even in a subtle way of framing, and the film comes alive. Maybe just a love of baseball allowed him to respond to what needs to happen to allow for the miracle of a perfect game, giving us moments such as the he visual representations of Chapel shutting out all the noise around him and “clearing the mechanism” before pitching. One prolonged shot near the end as he mentally prepares for one final inning is flat-out elegant in its shifting composition and the way the camera slowly moves into place is as carefully assembled as any of the EVIL DEAD craziness only not trying to be showy about it. In spite of who the main character plays for none of the film is set in Detroit but the choice feels appropriate both for Michigan native Raimi and so the team can feel appropriately part of old school baseball, a reminder of when the game didn’t stink as Brian Cox’s owner believes. What with the total decency of John O’Reilly as Billy’s catcher and sidekick (not a shred of Reed Rothchild in there) as well as the New York hotel bellman asking Billy to “take it easy on our boys today!” it’s surprising Raimi didn’t bring in a kid selling newspapers with headlines about the big game shouting “Extra! Extra!” Certain bravura moments of filmmaking stand out in particular such as a climactic shot of a ball in play apparently nowhere near anyone, taking on all the significance of the 2001 monolith for those few seconds. The film even has a nice rebuke at the end to the early belief that the game stinks in the Yankee fan seen booing throughout the game who finally applauds Chapel for what he’s done which, let’s face it, is what would really happen (well, maybe not if he played for Boston).
Watching the film for the first time in several years I was expecting a voiceover narration at the start so I must be confusing that with FIELD OF DREAMS but in this case the film seems to know it’s not necessary, instead playing to some sort of yearning we have for baseball deep down, for those memories of going to the park with our dad. Maybe one of the best things about the film is that it keeps those feelings about family and the past, internal, never putting them into words—this is cinema, after all—while feeling free to put the plot stuff about the corporate takeover of the team or the predictable romance into dialogue. The other stuff is private and no one else’s business. The film remembers that even if Billy Chapel is pitching that perfect game he’s not the only one out there on the field; he’s dependent on his teammates and the film knows that even if you’re not winning the pennant maybe, just maybe, there can be a day where you don’t suck. Considering my mood lately, that’s just about the most optimistic message I can imagine so maybe I’m ok with there being a movie where the Yankees aren’t the good guys. When Raimi finally isolates his star from everyone else in a key moment after the big game the camera keeps its distance at first, giving him some deserved privacy. He’s all alone, knowing only that he’s all alone, and as he finally breaks down sobbing the moment is so effective that if it had been what the film had truly been building towards it might have been genuinely transcendent. Of course, it couldn’t do that and the final scene where all of these concerns are basically dropped so we can get the “I’ve always been alone, now I don’t want to be, I need you, I love you, yadda yadda yadda.” It comes off as rote in comparison, but there was that moment. Sometimes when we’re by ourselves it’s all that matters.
Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel with just the right amount of nobility and cockiness, playing him as totally comfortable in his own skin and willing to be the monument that Raimi is pointing his camera up at—it’s nice to be reminded of why I liked Costner in the first place. Kelly Preston is likable as she’s often been but not really in his league—when Costner interacts with certain other actors like John C. Reilly or Jena Malone as Jane’s daughter the scenes just pop more and some of Preston’s best moments are silent ones when she’s by herself watching the game on TV. Brian Cox makes the most of his one big scene as the team owner with almost more decency than you can believe and even his dialogue-free cutaways as he watches the game unfold are genuinely affecting. JK Simmons, a few years away from playing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, is the manager of the Tigers, the now-familiar Daniel Dae Kim from LOST appears briefly as an ER doctor, Laura Cayouette of DJANGO UNCHAINED is a masseuse and Ted Raimi is a gallery doorman. Vin Scully is in there too, calling the game of course, and making the most of his chances to describe what Billy Chapel must be going through as he gets closer to the final out. He mentions calling the famous Don Larsen perfect game way back in 1956 which blows my mind a little and since he may not be calling Dodger games much longer looking at it now his presence in the film seems to matter that much more.
As I write this another post-season is heating up (go Mets) and I’m paying a little bit of attention but not that much. There are movies to go see, after all. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME recalls an echo of my own attachment to the game and maybe I’m responding to Raimi’s own apparent sentimental attachment to it as well--he veered back a little closer to his earlier work with 2000’s THE GIFT just over a year later before he went into SPIDER-MAN land. For me, that echo is a distant one at best--no point in talking about my father or how I bawled immediately after the first time I saw FIELD OF DREAMS because that’s none of your damn business. But I’m reminded that Yogi Berra just died, yet another reminder of the past receding further and further away and one quote that stood out to me when I was reading the obits was, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Along with its portrayal of the glory and simplicity of the game I suppose that’s one of the things FOR LOVE OF THE GAME tries to remind us to do before winter comes. It’s not so easy to get rid of that isolation, particularly when you’re so used to it. But maybe sometimes you need the optimism that things can change.

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