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Costner's Mild Pitch

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 1999

  Movie Critic

'For Love of the Game'
Kevin Costner goes to the well one too many times with "For Love of the Game." (Universal)

Sam Raimi
Kevin Costner;
Kelly Preston;
Jena Malone;
Richard T. Jones
Running Time:
2 hours
Sexual situations and strong language
Here are two things that definitely don't go together: baseball and piano music.

Yet these disparate elements of the universe are mixed in the new Kevin Costner film, "For Love of the Game," in which an aging righty hurls his way ever closer to the mythic perfecto while reflecting upon his romantic past and resolving to become a better, more expressive fellow.

Whenever Costner rears back and uncorks a high, hard one, the movie at least has some life. It was filmed in the real Yankee Stadium with authentic human beings who've been paid to curse, scream, spit and yap. They look just like the real thing, only nicer. The other players on the field appear to have some familiarity with that little white object called the ball.

And Costner's a good-enough athlete that he doesn't throw like Ronald – or, for that matter, Nancy – Reagan. He coils, he winds, the leg rises, the shoulders snap, the arm whips, and the ball whistles plateward. Inconsistent release point, but still, that's him, the real guy. He can throw. He got game.

But do we really want to see this fine fellow, this hearty specimen of American manhood – who is touted to be at the Ripken-Clemens level of success and celebrity – standing in the rain outside a woman's house, sniffling pitifully because girlfriend is entertaining another fellow in her well-lit upstairs boudoir? I may be wrong about this, but I think not.

Certainly, Costner's Billy Chapel has nothing of the personality or circumstances we might think of as a professional athlete's in the ESPNified '90s. He could be Dink himself, of "Dink Stover at Yale"; noble, selfless, wise, unconcerned with money, lacking (it seems) an agent, an entourage, a stable of Annies. When girlfriend Jane Aubrey's daughter runs away, Billy diverts the team bus to pick her up and bring her back on the team charter. The stadium announcer would introduce him like this: "Pitching, right-handed, 11 and 16, ERA 3.23, Lancelot, Sir, 'a verray, parfit gentil knyght.'"

The baseball half of the story just slightly works. Billy, the savvy veteran who'll never see the bright side of 40 again, is nearing the end of the season with a losing record on a team (Detroit's Tigers) that isn't making the playoffs.

He's got issues – the girlfriend thing, a catcher who not only isn't hitting but wears crummy clothes, the fact that the team's about to be sold and he'll be traded for prospects, a thumb that was almost sawed off, a sore shoulder and, incidentally, the New York Yankees, who would like to paste him back to the low minors. But he's still got heat.

I would have settled for a six-hit, 4-3 complete game. A shutout, okay. You're stretching it with a no-hitter. But when you go to that rarest of all birds, the perfect game, the movie just gets absurd. Still, because the director, Sam Raimi, clearly knows and loves the game, he does get you into it, and you feel your heart thumping as the outs accumulate and the triple goose-eggs hang there on the scoreboard, growing ever heavier.

Still, the movie's not really about baseball but about feelings – exchange baseball for hairdressing and Barbra Streisand could have starred. That's where the piano music comes up like thunder, that soggy, soapy stuff that drives its cheap melodrama into your heart like a nine-inch nail. Ugh, please, I gag.

Nothing in this half of the film works. In fact, it goes so far as to become downright annoying. Couldn't the screenwriters (working from a novel by Michael Shaara) have come up with a worthier woman for this aging champion? Kelly Preston's Jane, besides being New York's most fabulously successful freelance writer (what a house she lives in!), wears black, goes to gallery openings with men who speak in British accents, and is amazed to discover that in baseball "they count everything."

It's not merely that Preston is a one-dimensional actress and that her peculiar form of attractiveness is a generic beauty that seems neither sexual nor idealized and is so forgettable that her face vanishes from memory even as you're looking at it. It's that he's so passive and she's so abrasive that the coupling never makes sense. He seems more like a therapy washout than a ballplayer. He's no longer the tough, gritty, sly Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" but some kind of moony stalker (he keeps showing up, uninvited).

Surely we know intuitively that an athlete at this level has been the coolest guy in his class since the age of 8. He's moved in elite circles, he hasn't heard the word "no" in 30 years, and he's got Midas's money and a movie star's sex appeal. Plus, unlike Nolan Ryan, he's still got hair and a Hummer.

It's inconceivable that he'd be as insecure and groping and grasping as this prideless, self-doubting nebbish. He's a nerd. He could never play for the Durham Bulls – he's not tough enough.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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