Sports

Kevin Costner, in 'McFarland, USA,' returns to a film genre he's owned

Kevin Costner says he's 'a plodder,' as are the cross-country runners depicted in 'McFarland, USA'

No sport gives itself over to mystical lyricism the way baseball does, and Kevin Costner owns the songbook.

Yet the 60-year-old actor, burnished by the California sun till he's become the color of a Rawlings glove, still sees himself as the longshot struggling to make the JV team.

By turns stubborn, prideful and self-deprecating, Costner could — like Paul Newman and Robert Duvall — become an even more interesting actor with age. For now, he says he is merely trying to remain relevant in his chosen profession, the way craggy old catchers try to hang on.

Of all the actors who portray jocks — have you ever seen anything more herky-jerky catawampus than Robert Redford's home run swing? — Costner is probably the most believable. As such, he singlehandedly revived baseball movies, honoring the game with several plaintive tone poems.

Now he's made a movie about cross-country runners. Is America ready for that level of excitement? Is cross-country the answer to our post-Super Bowl funk?

Look, if you liked "The Blind Side," you'll probably enjoy "McFarland, USA," Costner's latest stab at a populist sports movie — a genre he has carried and owned throughout his 30-year career.

And if you didn't, you might still like "McFarland."

It's a different movie, just like Costner's a different dude. He's got that Everyman thing going, sure, but movie stars don't become movie stars because they're just like the rest of us.

Or maybe they just fake it better.

Here's a headline: The guy who played Crash Davis, the wisecracking stud in "Bull Durham," probably the best sports movie of all time, was 5 feet 2 and 98 pounds as a 16-year-old high school athlete.

To this day, Costner insists that he's an underdog just like everybody else.

"I'm a plodder — it takes me longer," he says. "I wasn't a 20-year-old star, I was 27 or 28 when it happened to me."

Just like with his athletic career, which also took awhile to get out of the batter's box.

"I could play, I went to a lot of different high schools, ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, 12th grade," he says. "But I was always looking for ways to make teams."

The Lynwood-born actor played football, baseball and basketball in Central and Southern California, before graduating from Villa Park. He describes himself as an average athlete and student.

In "McFarland," based on a true story, Costner plays legendary cross-country coach Jim White, who built a dynasty with the kids of Central Valley farmworkers. In pickers, Costner found the ultimate plodders. Their work ethic led the small town of McFarland to nine state titles in 24 years.

Costner, looking fit despite four knee surgeries, turns in an understated and effective performance as White, in a feel-good-movie you can take the entire family to.

And when was the last time that happened?

Well, there was "The Blind Side," and long before that, "Field of Dreams." Far racier, and probably Costner's finest, was "Bull Durham," one of the wittiest and most literary movies of all time.

I ask whether the best sports movies are a form of literature — "no question," he says — and whether all sports movies are about underdogs — "mostly," he says, citing other sagas of athletes who have wasted their gifts then lived to regret it.

Promoting his new movie in press interviews, Costner is how you would hope him to be. He starts by mocking the '70s-era furniture in the too-hip Hollywood hotel, then quickly segues into one of his favorite topics: sports.

"I don't like arrogance, I don't like athletes who taunt," he explains. "So the guy who doesn't do that, I root for him."

More endearing, he says, are the old-school types who better themselves through heart and hard work.

"In sports, you can get better ... and that's what happens," says the ex-player who grew up to become an icon.

Meanwhile, put "McFarland, USA," which opens next weekend, on your short list of family-friendly flicks. Not only is it inspirational in the way we like, it's a window on the plight of farm families who turn to sports to "get better."

It'll do more for your child's understanding of poverty than any school book or civil rights lecture.

"I like sports way too much to make a bad [sports movie]," Costner says of his 42nd role. "And that doesn't mean we made a great one here. But I saw the humanity in it, I saw the coaching in it, I saw the desolation of small towns, and that's the way it is for a lot of people."

Well played, Crash.

Follow Chris Erskine on Twitter @erskinetimes

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