Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Bull Durham (1988)

Bull Durham (1988) *** ½
Directed by: Ron Shelton.
Written by: Ron Shelton.
Starring: Kevin Costner (Crash Davis), Susan Sarandon (Annie Savoy), Tim Robbins (Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh), Trey Wilson (Joe Riggins), Robert Wuhl (Larry Hockett), William O'Leary (Jimmy), David Neidorf (Bobby), Danny Gans (Deke), Tom Silardi (Tony), Lloyd T. Williams (Mickey McFee), Rick Marzan (Jose), George Buck (Mr. Laloosh), Jenny Robertson (Millie), Gregory Avellone (Doc), Garland Bunting (Teddy Cullinane).

Yes, it’s true I had never seen Bull Durham before. I’m not quite sure how I missed one of the most popular romantic comedies/baseball movies of the 1980s, yet somehow I did. I think it is perhaps because I’ve never really been a Kevin Costner fan, and even though I quite liked Tin Cup (1996), along with several other of writer/director Ron Shelton films (White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, the underrated Dark Blue), I didn’t like them enough to go back and check out his earlier career (Bull Durham was his directorial debut). But recently, I decided to correct that and watch Shelton’s most popular film – and you know what? It’s pretty damned good. It’s as much of a romantic fantasy as any romantic comedy is, but somehow the addition of baseball makes it go down a little easier. It’s a fantasy that we want to believe, and so we do, which is really what the best romantic comedies are anyway.

The movie takes place over one baseball season in the minors, and centers on an odd love triangle. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is a hometown girl, who supports her beloved Durham Bulls, a Single A baseball team. Every year, she picks another player on the team to “hook up” with for the season – and every year, they have a career season, and are move up the ladder, and Annie is looking for another ball player. She doesn’t mind – it’s actually the life she prefers. This year, she has chosen two candidates. The first is Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a young hot shot pitcher, with a tremendous fastball, but no control. The other is Crash Davis (Costner), an aging catcher who has bounced around the minors so long he is about to break the all time minor league home run record – something he isn’t proud of. He had a brief stint in the majors, and wants to get back, but he’s smart enough to know his time is coming to an end. The organization has sent him down from triple A for the sole purpose of helping LaLoosh become a better pitcher. Crash isn’t happy about it, but he knows how things work.

The movie owes much of its success to the performances by the three leads – who had they not played their roles they way they did, could have derailed the entire movie. Imagine if Sarandon had made Annie into a pathetic, aging, slightly off kilter floozy, instead of an intelligent hometown girl trying to support the team. Had Robbins played LaLoosh as a kid with a massive ego, instead of a sweetly naïve, dimwitted kid who thinks just a little too highly of himself. Or if Costner had played Crash as a bitter, aging ball player who is pissed that he never got his shot. As written, each could have easily made those decisions, and the romantic fantasy of the film would have been broken. The movie requires us to like all three of these characters, and because the screenplay by Shelton is so smart, and the performances so on target, we do.

Like most sports movie, Bull Durham has its share of clichés – but even still, not quite as many as most. There is no big game at the end of the movie, where it all comes down to one play involving Robbins and Costner, with Sarandon sitting dewy eyed cheering from the stands. There is a lot of baseball in the film, but whether the Bulls win or lose doesn’t seem to matter to very many people. Everyone knows what the Bulls are – a weigh station where you put in your time either on the way up to the big leagues, or on your way down out of the game altogether. I can’t tell you if the Bull in this movie had a good or bad season, because it really doesn’t matter. However, there is a lot of talk about sports psychology, with Costner recycling the old clichés about not thinking, just pitching and there is even a clever scene where Costner helps Robbins with his clichés for the purposes of interviews – the way you can say a lot of words that essentially add up to nothing.

The reason Bull Durham remains so popular, I think, is because it is that rare movie that pleases both men and women. For the women in the audience, it has the romantic comedy plotline of the woman and man who are meant to be together, but are held apart for most of the movie by circumstances “beyond their control”. For men, there’s a witty, funny somewhat profane and knowing view at baseball. It indulges in the clichés of both genres, and yet somehow comes out feeling fresh. I now understand why people love it so much.

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