Field of More Dreams
Do you believe that the pitcher’s mound is “the loneliest spot in the world”? Do you consider “The Kid From Tomkinsville” the greatest novel ever written? When an athlete says the only time his heart’s been truly broken was when his team lost the pennant in 1987, do you nod your head in sympathy? “For Love of the Game” has your name on it.
Earnest enough to win the Gee Whiz triple crown, this reverential look at the game of baseball worships so passionately at the shrine of our National Pastime that it makes “The Natural” seem as dark and gritty as “8MM.” Yet because it’s been directed in an almost willfully old-fashioned way by the unlikely Sam (“The Evil Dead”) Raimi, when “For Love of the Game” sticks close to the mound, those who have even a small soft spot for baseball’s soothing rhythms will be hard-pressed to resist it.
Helping matters considerably was the decision to cast Kevin Costner as pitcher Billy Chapel, the Detroit Tigers’ “great veteran right-hander” who has his whole life pass in front of him as he throws what may be the game of his career before a hostile Yankee Stadium crowd.
Of course, given his success in “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams,” putting Costner in a baseball movie does not qualify as a major league risk. Yet even if the choice was obvious, the actor rewards it by giving one of his best performances. Laconic and iconic, able to lend a measure of credibility to the corniest dilemmas, Costner is intrinsically convincing as a star athlete, and it’s pleasant to notice how he’s been able to improve his work within his specific range.
Adapted from the Michael Shaara novella by Dana Stevens, “For Love of the Game” is at its best when it’s on the field with Billy, listening to his mind work as he faces the Yankee lineup. Consulting with veteran catcher Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly) and carefully deciding what pitch will work for what batter in which circumstances, Billy artfully maneuvers himself into a shot at a perfect game.
Clearly a baseball fan, director Raimi (known for his “Evil Dead” horror trilogy and last year’s “A Simple Plan” and, one would have erroneously thought, without a sentimental bone in his body) knows how to stage the on-field action so the hits and fielding chances have at least a whiff of reality about them.
If baseball is the most successful part of “For Love of the Game,” romance is its least satisfying. For one of the things that triggers Billy’s Yankee Stadium reveries, aside from the news that the Tigers are being sold and he might be traded for the first time in his 19-year career, is a crisis with his longtime girlfriend Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston).
She’s a beautiful New York writer who’s told him on the morning of the game that she’s taking that job in London, leaving that very day in fact. “You don’t need me,” she tells him, flinging the words in his face romance-novel style, and he wonders, as the game progresses, if that could be true.
Sitting in the dugout inning after inning, Billy reflects back on his cute-meet with Jane, helping her with her broken car on a New York highway, and on the twists and turns of their five-year relationship, which starts as an oh-so-adult “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of affair and ends in nothing but tears, tears, tears. “You are such a guy, you are the ultimate guy,” Jane says at one point (truer words were never spoken), intimating that a guy of the regular variety would be enough for her.
Costner and Preston have an acceptable amount of chemistry, but these romantic shenanigans are not involving in the slightest. But while writer Stevens (“City of Angels” was her last credit) has an unfortunate fondness for “my heart leapt in my chest” dramaturgy, her script is actually a marked improvement over Shaara’s paper-thin novella.
Though his brilliant Civil War novel “The Killer Angels” (glimpsed at one point as Billy’s in-flight reading) was the deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize, “For Love of the Game” was not published during the author’s life and only discovered after his death by his son Jeff. It’s clumsily written and so devoid of usable personal incident that if not for Stevens’ shrewd addition of events and characters (like a daughter for Jane, well-played by Jena Malone) there would be no film to speak of.
But not even Stevens’ plotting and the actors’ efforts can hide the fact that all of this film’s usable emotion is invested in its baseball sequences. The romance between people in “For Love of the Game” is awkwardly handled, playing like the afterthought Jane fears she’s been in the pitcher’s life. The only love that really matters here is the one between a man and the game he’s played for a lot longer than five years.
Making the baseball sequences that much more effective is the constant voice-over presence of Vin Scully, the consensus pick for the best play-by-play announcer of our time. Scully’s impeccable vocalizing, his innate sense of drama, adds a much-needed touch of classicism to the proceedings, reminding us, as this film is desperate to, what the sport’s image was before umpires went on strike and agents controlled the game. Intended as a love note to baseball’s old-fashioned aspects, “For Love of the Game” also ends up as an unintentional tribute to one of the greatest on-air voices the game has seen.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: It’s all fairly genteel.
‘For Love of the Game’
Kevin Costner: Billy Chapel
Kelly Preston: Jane Aubrey
John C. Reilly: Gus Sinski
Jena Malone: Heather
Brian Cox: Gary Wheeler
J.K. Simmons: Frank Perry
A Beacon Pictures/Tig Productions/Mirage Enterprises production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Sam Raimi. Producers Armyan Bernstein, Amy Robinson. Executive producers Ron Bozman, Marc Abraham. Screenplay Dana Stevens, based on the novel by Michael Shaara. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editors Eric L. Beason, Arthur Coburn. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Basil Poledouris. Production design Neil Spisak. Art directors Jim Feng, Steve Arnold. Set decorators Carolyn Cartwright, Karen O’Hara. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.
In general release.