Kevin Costner made a lot of sports movies, and some are good. 'For Love of the Game' gets baseball's glacial pace and self-seriousness right, but not much else.
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Kevin Costner is synonymous with the sports movie genre, for better or for worse. A generation of sports fans grew up with such memorable Costner characters as Crash Davis, Ray Kinsella, Scott Tincup, and Anquan Draftday. For all the iconic sports movies that have featured Costner, from Bull Durham to Field Of Dreams, just as many others have been forgotten, sometimes rightfully but occasionally, as in films like McFarland, USA, or American Flyers, unjustly. There are a lot of them. It happens.
In 1999, Kevin Costner was at the far, far end of the acceptable age range to play a Major League Baseball pitcher; only Nolan Ryan and Jamie Moyer have been convincing big league pitchers at the age of 44, and both had strong science-fiction/magical realism aspects to their careers, in retrospect. Costner gave it a shot nonetheless, in an uneven, predictable, sentimental, and very long movie called For Love of the Game, which is somehow directed by Sam Raimi. It's not very good, but as it also features Vin Scully as himself, calling a baseball game, it is automatically graded on a curve. It's still not much good, burdened by both high expectations and an obscenely padded-out story, but after Scully's last summer in the booth, a little bit of Vin helps a lot.
For Love of the Game has a good pedigree behind it, beyond Costner, Raimi, and Scully. Michael Shaara, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, wrote the short novel upon which FLOTG is based shortly before his death in 1988. His family discovered the manuscript, and by the time the book was published in 1991, Costner already had two classic baseball movies under his belt. Despite everyone's best efforts, there would not be a third.
Kevin Costner is Billy Chapel, the fortysomething ace of a Detroit Tigers team that seems only to play road games at Yankee Stadium. Both Billy's career and his relationship with the love of his life, Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston, who is better in some scenes than others but overall comes off as an afterthought) are nearing an end, and he only has one day to get his shit together before, well, going back to his beautiful house in Aspen and collecting his MLB pension. The movie blunts the impact of Billy's game and his romance by dragging both out through a series of unnecessary and unhurried character arcs and redemption angles. For much of the film, Billy is in the middle of pitching a perfect game, in spite of all his physical and emotional pain, but the film proceeds at the glacial pace of a late September walkfest in which both teams use six relievers.
Preston's Jane is stuck in an airport lounge with an obnoxious Nu Yawker as her estranged life partner pitches his last big league game, and he reminds her so much of an auto mechanic who witnessed Preston and Costner's meet-cute off the side of a road some five years prior that it triggers a flashback. (It might have been nice had either The Wire's Domenick Lombardozzi or Cop Rock's Larry Joshua play both roles, but as it is Herk is the mechanic and L-Josh the fan.) Billy is supposed to be a youthful 35 in this flashback, but Costner's crow's feet are never more evident than here. Having just met Jane, Billy takes her to a ballgame—conveniently also at Yankee Stadium—and during dinner he almost looks ready to talk about an ex-wife but instead winds up revealing that he's had 134 losses in his career up to that point. Being tagged for exactly as many L's as Doug Drabek is not as big a hang-up for Jane as Billy thought it would be, and so they begin a no-strings-attached-but-not-really relationship. Jena Malone is also in there somewhere, as the teenage daughter Jane had when she herself was a teen.
At one point Billy fucks up his hand chopping wood, and Jane drives him to the ER. She's denied visitation rights because they have yet to marry, and screams "ARE WE NOT IN AMERICA? ISN'T BASEBALL OUR GREATEST PASTIME?!" This being America—or, more precisely, an alternate-universe America that cares more about baseball than football—Jane gets her way. Unfortunately Jane soon realizes that poor Billy is horrible at saying the right things while in horrible pain. This becomes a recurring theme, as Chapel's shoulder starts to chronically nag him, and he starts to chronically nag Jane, eventually driving her (metaphorically) to the airport so she can jet off to London and a new job. It is of no surprise, limited spoiler value, and ultimately little importance that Billy Chapel does get his perfect game, and that he gets the girl back.
For a MLB team, the Detroit Tigers of For Love of the Game are terrific actors. John C. Reilly has fun as Billy's personal catcher, and loosens the film up some, if only because most of his lines sound like non-sequiturs straight from the mouth of Dr. Steve Brule. J.K. Simmons is still one Sam Raimi movie away from breaking out on the big screen, but he delivers some solid Oz-era, pre-Spider-Man work. Brian Cox, beloved figure from such family classics as Manhunter and L.I.E., plays Tigers owner Gary Wheeler, the film's non-pizza Mike Ilitch analogue. Jacob Reynolds, the boy America grew to love after watching Gummo, plays Wheeler's nephew, who is nominally a liaison to the owner but mostly watches Kevin Costner tug at his own belly and put on his uniform.
You almost wish Raimi made Spider-Man before For Love of the Game, if only so he could let Macho Man Randy Savage as Bonesaw McGraw bat cleanup. At least Juan Nieves and Ricky Ledee are on hand as glorified extras to lend actual MLB experience, along with future Yankees and Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland. Nieves is best known for pitching a no-hitter in 1987 for the Milwaukee Brewers, while Ledee played pivotal roles in both Kevin Millwood's 2003 no-hitter for the Phillies, and David Cone's perfect game at Yankee Stadium, two months before the September 1999 release of FLOTG. Augie Garrido, the legendary college baseball coach, plays the private-label Joe Torre for your fictionalized 1999 New York Yankees.
The best performance in the film is probably Vin Scully's, and he's just doing his job. Scully has obviously called no-hitters and perfect games before, and also put in plenty of time narrating implausible love stories, convoluted game shows, retrospectively problematic sitcoms, and celebrity softball spectaculars. For Love of the Game has elements of all those, and Scully does his best to be the calm in the storm during the game, although he's too often drowned out by the score. It's not just a bad filmmaking tactic to turn up Bob Seger so loud that you can't hear Vin Scully talk, although it is definitely that. It's also just rude. Steve "Psycho" Lyons is also in the booth, although fortunately very few of his politically incorrect pants-dropping trademarks are on display.
Perfect games, by and large, are relatively short affairs, most clocking in at two hours or less. You could watch Philip Humber's 2012 perfect game in its entirety and still have a few seconds to celebrate in the time you can watch For Love of the Game. Which is to say that Humber's effort was long for a perfect game, For Love of the Game is really long for a Kevin Costner baseball movie, and that both this movie and Humber will ultimately not figure heavily in baseball history.
For Love of the Game only made back $46 million off of its $80 million budget, which makes McBain: Let's Get Silly seem like a better use of that money. Even factoring in Costner's one-time bankability, the deep-bench casting, the presence of an ace director, and intellectual property from a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, it's still mind-boggling that For Love of the Game could be so expensive to produce. I can only hope the boy from Gummo never has to work again, thanks to this movie. There are some nice moments studded among the its 138 minutes, especially Scully's call of the final outs, but there's a lot of money sitting inertly on the screen for much longer stretches. If you are longing to revisit Vin Scully's work, you could do worse than fast-forwarding through most of For Love of the Game to hear one of the greatest broadcasters of all time (other than Steve Lyons) do what he does best. You won't be missing much.
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