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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Cobb’: What Becomes a Legend Least? : Shelton’s Latest Film Shows Bad and Ugly of Baseball Star

TIMES FILM CRITIC

In his lifetime and after, as a player and a personality, Ty Cobb both astonished and horrified. A consensus pick, says biographer Al Stump, as “the most feared, castigated and acclaimed figure” in baseball history, Tyrus Raymond Cobb was too much for the world while he lived. Now, decades past his death, his memory alone has overmatched Ron Shelton.

Shelton, the gifted writer-director whose best work (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”) involves sports, has used Stump’s agonizing relationship with his subject as the framework for “Cobb,” an ambitious but uneven and finally unsatisfying look at a man succinctly summarized as “hell in spikes.”

Viewed simply as a player, Cobb was arguably the greatest who ever lived. The first man elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, a competitor whose fire turned Gen. Douglas MacArthur into a tongue-tied acolyte, Cobb set 123 records during a career that lasted from 1905 to 1928, and his .367 lifetime batting average is one of several marks that no one is close to challenging even today.

Known for pioneering an aggressive approach to the game, Cobb was a terror during his off-hours. He was harsh, bigoted and probably psychotic, the kind of man who sent opponents to the hospital, took a blacksnake whip to his own son and proudly claimed to have pistol-whipped a street thug to death.

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As shrewd as he was nasty, Cobb made millions in the stock market, secretly supported some of his old opponents and handsomely endowed the Cobb Scholarship Fund for students who couldn’t afford college. But as he neared the end of his life in 1960, nearly crippled by numerous illnesses and convinced that no one had ever properly appreciated him, he formed an unlikely friendship with Stump.

A sportswriter hired to collaborate on the great one’s autobiography, Stump became an alter ego who “drew his bath, got drunk with him, and knelt with him in prayer on black nights when he knew death was near.”

Their book, “My Life in Baseball,” did not, on Cobb’s insistence, contain any of that life’s less savory aspects. Shortly after the man’s death, Stump wrote a celebrated magazine piece that did, called “Ty Cobb’s Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” and has just published his second book on the subject, “Cobb: A Biography,” a thorough and chilling look at the athlete seen whole.

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Clearly, this is fascinating business and a film that concentrates more on the Cobb-Stump relationship than the former’s playing career, as this one does, couldn’t help but be of some interest. But like its subject, “Cobb” the movie invariably gets out of hand, its lack of sharp dramatic focus exacerbating problems in both casting and structure that prove difficult to overcome.

“Cobb’s” initial trouble is that, to no great surprise, its namesake is much easier to take in print than on screen. Cobb’s debilitating physical ailments, his propensity for shooting off his Luger as well as his mouth, the perpetual abuse he rains on anyone within reach, all inevitably become wearisome.

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In theory, having the ferocious and talented Tommy Lee Jones play Cobb would lessen the pain, but it does not. Perhaps the actor is finally too tailor-made for the role, or maybe he and the director simply behaved as if he were. But the result, whether Cobb is wailing about greatness or ruminating about the dark circumstances around his father’s death, is a performance too operatic and out of control.

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Equally problematical is the way Stump is portrayed by actor Robert Wuhl. Shelton, who has used Wuhl in two of his earlier films and is clearly fond of him, wrote the role with the actor in mind, a major miscalculation.

Though the idea was apparently to portray Stump as sweet and vulnerable, in Wuhl’s hands he comes off as the whiny, sniveling and servile half of a “The Champ and the Chump” double bill. As the harried man who watches over Cobb as he travels from the night life of Reno to an old-timer’s banquet at Cooperstown, N.Y., to a trip to his Georgia roots, Stump is the main audience surrogate and it is fatal to have an irritating presence in that role.

Without anyone to care about, “Cobb’s” script problems become increasingly intractable. Confronted by Cobb’s volcanic personality, the film is completely nonplussed, unable to decide if it should be amused, piteous, reluctantly admiring or just plain disgusted.

A similar sense of uncertainty pervades all creative choices, from opening with an awkward fake newsreel detailing Cobb’s baseball exploits to dealing with minor characters like an ill-used Reno cigarette girl (Lolita Davidovich) or even coming up with a plausible reason why Stump stuck around through all the abuse.

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“You don’t have a point of view, Stumpy, you’re not worth killing,” Cobb says, laying down his weapon in one of his quasi-sane moments, and it is a point well taken. Without a coherent aesthetic vision, this film and its ponderous emphasis on the cost of greatness is not what it might be either.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and for scenes of nudity and violent behavior. Times guidelines: It is a portrait of a thoroughly reprehensible character.

‘Cobb’

Tommy Lee Jones: Ty Cobb

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Robert Wuhl: Al Stump

Lolita Davidovich: Ramona

In association with Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros. Director Ron Shelton. Producer David Lester. Executive producer Arnon Milchan. Screenplay Ron Shelton, based on the book “Cobb: A Biography” by Al Stump. Cinematographer Russell Boyd. Editors Paul Seydor, Kimberly Ray. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Armin Ganz, Scott T. Ritenour. Art directors Troy Sizemore, Charles Butcher. Set decorator Claire Jenora Bowin. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center, (310) 553-8900.

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