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FOR LOVE OF THE GAME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Jena Malone, Brian Cox
Director:  Sam Raimi
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  138 Minutes
Release Date:  April 4, 2000

Film **

Despite panning from critics, I still went into For Love of the Game feeling that I was going to like it.  I’m a huge baseball fan, and generally enjoy most movies that deal with the game.  I wasn’t concerned about the love story angle…after all, one of my all time favorite films, The Natural, balanced the game and romance nicely.  Kevin Costner and baseball have always made for good on-screen entertainment, and the movie was directed by Sam Raimi.  I’ve never seen a film by Sam Raimi that I didn’t like.

As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.  I try to take solace in the fact that I believe deep down that Raimi was no more than a director for hire for this picture.  It was produced by Costner’s own TIG productions, and history has shown that he tends to dominate all aspects of production of films that come from his own company (see:  Waterworld).  Plus, some of the material here was so poor, I doubt any director could have really salvaged it fully.

This is about as bad a Jekyll/Hyde syndrome as you’ll see in a film.  It’s part baseball story, part romance, but the two aspects don’t really work together because they each have such a distinct and separate feel to them.  The baseball story involves an aging pitcher, Billy Chapel (Costner), who’s reached the point all professional athletes have to face up to sooner or later:  retirement.  We learn that Chapel has had a Hall of Fame type career, but the effects of getting older and the inevitable aches and pains that come with it have taken their toll on his performance in recent years.  He’s going to start the last game of the season, leading his Tigers against the Yankees in New York, knowing that afterwards, he’ll either have to retire or accept a trade.

I was absorbed by every aspect of the baseball story, showing Chapel on the verge of pitching a perfect game, and the drama that intensified as the game went on, and Chapel fighting more and more shoulder pain along the way.  In this part of the film, Raimi triumphs.  He takes us deep inside the major league game, and shows us what it looks like and how it feels from the inside…to stand on the mound with thousands of people screaming at you, to watch from the dugout, to see the pitches coming at you…plus, what better setting for a baseball movie than the legendary Yankee stadium?  I loved every moment of it.

The problem, then, is the constant flashbacks to Chapel’s on again, off again relationship with Jane Aubrey (Preston).  In these scenes, the film nearly approaches the unbearable tediousness of The Story of Us.  The dialogue is weak, unreal, and with a high wince factor.  Two examples:  Jane calls Billy on the road, hysterical because her daughter (Malone) ran away, probably heading to her father.  This is the first Billy and we, the audience learn of this teenage daughter.  Billy happens to be in the town where the girl is headed, can he help?  “What’s her name?” he asks.  “Freedom,” she replies.  Pause.  “Scared you, didn’t I?  It’s Heather.”  Just the thing a panicked mother would say.

The second involves a scene where Billy is taken to the emergency room with a cut hand, and can’t get immediate attention.  Jane stands in the middle of the room and screams, “Isn’t this America?  Isn’t baseball America’s most favorite pastime?”  I actually squirmed in my seat at that point…and these two examples are merely highlights.

And there’s more to the Jekyll/Hyde theory.  Costner is great in the baseball story.  He’s believable to the point where even his pitching looks authentic enough for the big leagues.  Physically, he’s right, and his performance is strong.  In the love story, however, he always looks as lost and uncomfortable as we are.  It doesn’t help that his leading lady Preston proves once again she’s simply a pretty face with very little acting range, and it certainly was no help to her to have to work from a script that was so poor to begin with.

What do you get when you combine two decidedly different story lines and try to make a single, coherent picture out of them?  A mess, to be quite frank.  Despite the greatness of the baseball story, the love story strangles it too much to earn a recommendation.  Billy Chapel may be heading for the Hall, but this picture probably should be stuffed in a convenient closet along the way.

Video ***1/2

This is a mostly impressive anamorphic transfer from Universal…very few complaints.  For the most part, images are crisp and well defined, and colors are nicely rendered and contained.  The print is free from scars and artifacts.  Only a couple of problems worth noting—one nighttime scene that takes place outside of Jane’s house that exhibits a little grain, and one overly saturated scene when Billy and Jane first meet, where the light comes across too strong, weakening the colors and softening the images.  Apart from those minor, fleeting moments, this still represents a quality effort from Universal.

Audio ***

This 5.1 audio mix typifies what’s wrong with the film:  every time it traverses from the game to the love story, it becomes less interesting.  The game scenes are the biggest audio assets, with a full range of crowd noise and other game dynamics that make good use of all surround channels and subtle uses of the .1 speaker.  The sound is ambient and multi-dimensional there.  During the other scenes, the soundtrack loses dynamics, and even dialogue sounds rather flat and unmixed.  The musical score is fine, and comes across in a nice spread across all speakers.  But the game scenes really redeem, and make the listening experience worthwhile.

Features ***

Though not billed as a Collector’s Edition disc, there are few good features worth noting, including a Spotlight on Location featurette, a trailer (if only the movie were as good as this trailer is!), deleted scenes, some DVD ROM extras, info on the history of the perfect game, and a baseball trivia game, which, when completed successfully, leads to one of the coolest Easter eggs I’ve yet seen…a short film called “Slide, Babe, Slide” in remarkable condition, and featuring the legendary Babe Ruth giving some pointers to a young sandlot baseball team.  For me, it was the best part of the whole disc.

Summary:

For Love of the Game is a classic example about how the enjoyment can be sapped from a movie’s shining moments by the moments that struggle to breathe.  Both Kevin Costner and Sam Raimi have had finer moments, and no doubt will again, and the sooner both of them put this picture behind them, the better.