In “Bull Durham” (selected theaters), a sweet and sexy comedy set around a rat-poor minor-league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, writer-director Ron Shelton is absolutely the diamond’s best friend. He has packed his offbeat love story with a handful of resonant characters, all of whom, in one way or another, worship with Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) at what she calls “the church of baseball, the only church that feeds the soul.”
Chief communicant is Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who after 12 bruising years as a catcher in the minors has been brought to this single-A farm team to smarten up a blazing young rookie pitcher. Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), this bonus baby, has potential but the suspicion is that he’s wearing his IQ on his uniform. Accuracy is also not his long suit; he’s as likely to hit the announcer’s booth or the Bull Mascot as the strike zone. What control he has seems to be limited to his lovemaking--and maybe not even there.
Pitcher, catcher and . . . unofficial trainer: Ebby, Crash and Annie might make a perfect triangle, except that Crash won’t play. Annie’s guidelines allow her to take one player, and one only, under her wing each spring, to give him the benefit of her life experience, to smarten up his playing and to send him on his way. She’s narrowed this season’s roster down to Crash and Ebby, but after 12 years, Crash feels himself well above auditioning. It leaves Annie only Ebby, and for those in the audience who think experience has it over raw enthusiasm every time, it may seem that it’s Annie getting shortchanged.
In addition to Annie’s buddy Millie (Jenny Robertson), a wholehearted baseball groupie, Shelton has rounded out the Bulls with a grand comic pair, Skip Riggins (Trey Wilson), as their manager, and Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl), as the pitching coach and tobacco-juice adept who speaks a lingo as fast and impenetrable as a tobacco auctioneer’s.
Shelton (writer of “The Best of Times,” co-writer of “Under Fire”), who spent five years as a second baseman in the minors, shows off a rowdy knowledgeability in these fiercely funny baseball scenes. He knows firsthand the jargon, the fears, the acrid smell of these miserable locker rooms and touring buses, and he makes sure we listen up and breathe deeply. He’s uncanny at putting us inside his players’ heads when they’re on the mound or up at bat, running their private litanies of encouragement and subversion to psych themselves up.
And he’s created hilarious scenes in the compleat education of Ebby LaLoosh (played with goofy, young-stud bravado and residual honesty by Robbins, almost unrecognizable from his serious “Four Corners” role). The cosmic side of that tutelage comes from Annie, who favors a mix of bondage and Walt Whitman in her curriculum: “A guy will listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay.” Practical baseball matters Ebby gets from Crash: Woe betide a pitcher whose arrogance lets him shake off his catcher’s explicit signals.
Whether you believe Shelton’s lusty, uninhibited love story is another matter. It’s seductively easy to want to, with the warmth and brightness that Sarandon and Costner bring to Annie and Crash.
On paper, Crash is the jock that women dream about, the sensitive, quirky, knowledgeable man’s man who will debate you the merits of Susan Sontag at the drop of a batting average and who knows his way around a garter belt as surely as he knows his way from first base to home. If he carries a residual sadness, it’s from his knowledge that he’s never going to make it in “the show,” (lingo for the majors).
In no hurry to assert himself, Costner plays Crash quiet and watchful, with a resigned mixture of irony, sexual assurance and corrosive humor. Taking a leaf from Jack Nicholson’s astronaut in “Terms of Endearment,” Costner’s not afraid to pooch out his gut to suggest a young man beginning to go to seed. With Costner in control, it’s almost indecent to question his character’s believability.
But Shelton puts great store in life experience, and that body of knowledge suggests that men who look like Kevin Costner, or Gary Cooper or . . . you name him, are more likely to shut up than to mouth off. And that Crash’s soulful declaration of allegiance to “the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good Scotch, long foreplay and . . . long, slow, deep, soft wet kisses that last for three days” is just so much writer’s palaver. (In deference to this newspaper’s family readers, a lot of the good stuff was omitted.)
In the same vein, Annie, for all the tough/soft dimension that Sarandon gives her, is really a paper-thin vehicle for a man’s warmest imaginings. She’s a hangover from the sappier songs of the ‘60s, where you sang in the sunshine, gave yourself unrestrainedly, then moseyed on your way, no ties, no expectations (no trips to the free clinic), only a broad smile and some mighty nice memories left behind.
“Bull Durham’s” poignancy comes from Annie’s realization that, thinking back over this unending army of the boys of summer, “what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games.” It’s what makes Crash, also beginning to see dark at the end of the tunnel, such a find for her.
Certainly a great part of the movie’s sensuality comes from the unabashed delight that this pair of seasoned veterans take in each other. (Its R rating comes from its lack of inhibitions in sex and language.) But it doesn’t completely block out the feeling that these two are a writer’s high-flying conceit, not the gospel truth.
It may not matter in the slightest to most of the movie’s fans, and you suspect they’ll be legion. This is summer, after all, the ideal time for the joys of a baseball movie. It’s just that when a movie is this close, with so much of the sports flavor (co-producer Thom Mount is co-owner of the real Durham Bulls), you like to see it perfect.