For Love of the Game

If you haven’t had your fill of movies in which everything hinges on the Big Game, For Love of the Game might do it for you. It’s presumably meant as the concluding film in Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy; as such, it’s not terrible, but it lacks the wit of Bull Durham and the resonance of Field of Dreams. This movie, based on a short novel by the late Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels), is about nothing less — or more — than baseball as a metaphor for life: Even when it hurts, you gotta stay in there pitching. We grasp that after five minutes, but the movie goes on for another two hours and fifteen minutes.

Not that there aren’t some stray good moments along the way. Costner is Billy Chapel, a forty-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Billy is apparently the star of the team; he’s the only player anyone talks about, and his teammates — especially his devoted catcher Gus (John C. Reilly) — seem in awe of him. He’s a living legend, and Costner plays him with becoming modesty. His scenes with Kelly Preston, as a magazine writer he falls for, and with the gifted Jena Malone as a teenage girl he sort of takes under his wing, are casual and intimate. This is one of his regular-guy performances, just the way his fans seem to like him, and if he doesn’t do anything fresh, he at least does familiar things with finesse.

For Love of the Game has a ruminative flashback structure: The conceit is that, as Billy plays what may be his final game, he thinks back on his life — mostly the recent past having to do with the Preston character, Jane Aubrey. We keep flipping back and forth, a technique that only works when the past illuminates or comments on the present. Here, it just seems like a nostalgia trip. We learn nothing much about Billy — he is defined entirely by his passion for the game and his greatness as a pitcher. Jane’s character is similarly sketchy; she exists to throw Billy a curveball every now and then (that may or may not be a pun; she may actually be intended as a symbolic pitcher throwing relationship fastballs Billy can’t hit).

When we’re not watching the flashbacks — which lose whatever warmth and momentum they’ve been allowed to build whenever we’re taken out of them again — we’re watching the game, or, more precisely, The Game. Every pitch, hit, bunt, foul, strike, and slide into first base has the weight of Hercules’ twelve labors. Billy is driving himself to pitch the perfect game — i.e., no hitters taking a base — and he’s working against physical and spiritual pain: His shoulder is killing him, Jane has just dumped him, and he might get traded to the Giants. Given all this, you can pretty much predict how Billy’s trial on the mound will end, and you’ll be right.

For Love of the Game is painless, but it’s also pompous and pious about baseball in a way that doesn’t mean much to a non-fan like me. Also, I see that I’ve gotten almost to the end of the review without mentioning the director, Sam Raimi. That’s because anyone could have directed it. Which is a shame, because Raimi was once a terrific screwball horror-comedy director (the Evil Dead movies, Darkman) who has succumbed to a yearning for mainstream respect. First he gave us A Simple Plan, which I found bland and overrated; now he gives us a sanctimonious baseball fable. If he keeps this up, he’ll be ready to shoot a Nora Ephron script. Sam Raimi may have wanted to break into the big leagues, but I liked him better when he was in a league of his own. He doesn’t use the camera as a fastball any more — he doesn’t throw us any curves. Maybe he’s forgotten how; maybe he no longer wants to. Whatever the reason, even Raimi fans who enjoyed A Simple Plan may look at For Love of the Game and sadly conclude that he’s lost his arm. Let’s hope it’s only a temporary Hollywood sprain.

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