The biggest mistake that screenwriter Dana Stevens (adapting from the Michael Shaara novel) and director Sam Raimi make in their baseball weepie, For Love of the Game, is one of general structure. The film begins at the end, with aging Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) starting in what may his last game against the New York Yankees.
His catcher Gus (John C. Reilly) warns him against it. Gus is one of those cinematic best friends who doesn't seem to have any life except to support the lead character.
"You're hurting," he cautions. "It's just a throwaway."
The message is obvious. The season is almost over. The Tigers are out of contention. It doesn't matter who plays.
In a New York hotel room, the Tigers' owner comes in to announce he's selling the club and the new management is insisting that Billy be traded. Billy is floored. He's been with Detroit his entire career. The owner suggests he retire, arguing that Billy has had a great run. He's won every major award, contributed to a world championship (he dominated the 1984 Series opener against San Diego) and a spot in the Hall of Fame is surely awaiting. There's nothing left to achieve. Why not retire as a Tiger?
Billy is presented as an anomaly among modern athletes: a loyal ballplayer who retains a childlike love for the game. It's a slap in the face to all those free agents who follow the dollars to the highest bidder. In fact, all the players in this film are men of character. It's quite a turnaround from the greedy whiners, woman-batterers and drug abusers who caused Tom Cruise's moral crisis in Jerry Maguire.
Billy says he will ponder the retirement question. In the meantime, he's in the midst of being stood up by a woman who was supposed to meet him at his room for dinner the previous night. She finally calls in the morning from the lobby but, by the time he comes down to meet her, she's high-tailing it for Central Park.
It's here we meet Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston). She's come, with much hesitation, to tell him she's going to London to accept an editorship and their relationship of five years is over. Her justification: Billy never really needed her. It was only the game that ever mattered.
Flash forward to Yankee Stadium. Jane's flight is delayed. Every television in the airport is tuned in, so she's forced to watch. It is here, 30 minutes into the film, that we finally get to the heart of things. As the game progresses, we're offered a series of flashbacks, filling us in on the back story of Billy and Jane's life together.
Sometimes this method of storytelling works. Sometimes it doesn't. For Love of the Game wants so much to be a cosmopolitan Hollywood romance, along the same lines as An Affair to Remember, Roman Holiday or the more recent Thomas Crown Affair. The film is beautifully lit. Billy and Jane cavort through lush hotels, restaurants and condominiums beneath the dazzling Florida sun. Unfortunately, in this case, the flashbacks make us feel disconnected from the events. They are the meat of the story, yet they're often presented to us as filler. The painful result is a spotty romance that we never feel privy to.
Time proves Jane's accusation to be true. The game is all that matters. Billy is extremely self-absorbed. At one point, Jane complains that Billy knows nothing about her. It's obvious that the film is siding with him. We don't know anything about Jane, either. Any good romance gives both leads equal weight. But Jane is a ghost in this film, a victim of Billy's single-mindedness.
Here's proof: The film's most compelling moments are during that be-all, end-all game with the Yankees. Billy is on his way to a perfect game. On the mound, we are truly aware of his aches and pains. We're also aware of his experience as he plays psychological games with the batter, having one-sided conversations with the players he knows. He truly is a master of his craft. Too bad it's ruined when Gus comes out and starts making Gipper speeches.
This is the most sentimental sports movie since The Natural. But you could argue that Robert Redford was a prodigy cut down in his prime, deprived of his potential to be the greatest who ever was. Billy, on the other hand, is saying farewell to a stellar two-decade career. Some may wonder what he's complaining about. To be fair, the film does a good job of convincing us that his identity is meshed with the baseball diamond, and how difficult it is to walk away from a profession when you're still sound in mind.
What is it with Costner and cheeseball sentiment? It clings to him like a layer of grime that no amount of washing will remove. It seems that Dances with Wolves gave him epic dreams, and he's been trying to recapture them ever since. Occasionally he's been successful: I'm not ashamed that I'm one of the few who liked The Postman. But for some reason, he doesn't handle the self-aggrandizing mythic hero very well. I wonder if Braveheart would have won those Oscars if Costner had worn the kilt. He needs to join Kenneth Branagh in the classroom to learn how not to overact.
Some critics were optimistic about this picture, pointing out that Costner is three for three on sports films (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup). But the best of these were comedies, with Costner playing a down-and-out bum. In these roles, for better or for worse, he's the most affable and charming.
But he's putting the dreary expression back on here. And the result is a forlorn character study masquerading as a romantic drama.
CityBeat Grade: C