(A Brief Intermission In An Ongoing Series)
Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston): What if… I were totally disfigured, if my face were all scraped away, I had no arms, no legs, no brainwaves, and I was being kept alive on a heart/ lung machine– would you love me?
Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner): No… but we could still be friends, though.
Like fellow mad genius David Lynch, Sam Raimi made a 1999 movie you wouldn’t have expected him to make in 1999. Unlike Lynch, Raimi didn’t make a mainstream-friendly film that still twitched with traces of his twisted brilliance; he made a pedestrian snooze-fest bloated with the lamest hallmarks of Hollywood sports and romance.
After years of frolicking in grisly, comic-book mayhem (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman), Raimi’s 1998 adaptation of A Simple Plan proved he could cook up pulpy thrills in more realistic and subdued territory. Unfortunately, when he stepped even further out of his comfort zone with 1999’s For Love Of The Game, he neglected to bring even one of his talents.
The love story between aging Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) and fashion writer Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) is about as intoxicating as a cardboard perfume sampler from a five-year-old Cosmo. Costner ambles through his beige role, coasting on his past baseball triumphs; he drifts between Bull Durham‘s crackling Crash Davis and Field Of Dreams‘ endearingly sentimental Ray Kinsella, yet never quite grasps those characters’ charms. As for Preston’s Jane, at one point she literally says, “the real me is plain and uninteresting,” and she’s not just being modest. Nor is she setting up a character arc where she eventually learns to be not “plain and uninteresting.” She’s simply telling the audience that she won’t help make the film’s running time feel any less interminable.
Their on-again/ off-again love affair unfolds in excruciatingly ponderous flashbacks as Billy pitches his last game, which just happens to be a perfect game. By default, the sports-movie half is more entertaining than the romance-movie half, but just barely. So many of the game’s Big Plays are so blatantly telegraphed, I often felt like I was stealing the movie’s signs. Will the outfielder who blew an earlier game with a Jose Canseco-sized error redeem himself with a game-saving, home-run-robbing catch? As Vin Scully might say, No fucking doy!
Even worse, Raimi hardly tries to make the overly-predictable game more exciting to watch. It’s one thing if he wanted to continue shying away from the hyper-kinetic camera-work of Evil Dead, but he deprives this movie of anything remotely resembling cinematic style. There’s one visually interesting sequence illustrating how Billy tunes out the heckling yahoos in Yankee Stadium, and that’s about it. The gap between what the potentially dazzling Raimi could have done with the game of baseball and what he actually delivers is mind-bogglingly vast.
As I said a few months back in the post on Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, the aim of Sick Desperation In Your Laugh is to spotlight the best, most 1999-y movies rather than dump on that year’s bad or generic stuff. Yet before I get into the homestretch of this series, I had to mention For Love Of The Game because its level of mediocrity is, in a way, a noteworthy achievement. In theory, Sam Raimi should’ve made one of the 1999iest films ever, but what he gave us instead was so un-1999 it might as well have come from 1992. In fact, the more I think about For Love Of The Game, the more I wonder if it’s an elaborate prank, an impish filmmaker’s attempt to create a paragon of vanilla cinema and not let anyone in on the joke– except maybe John C. Reilly.
And if that’s the case, that is insanely 1999.