Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.
There’s a joke at the start of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story that goes, more or less, “You’re gonna have to give him a moment. Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays.” For Love of the Game is that, but for baseball, and done with stone-faced seriousness.
Ok, that’s a touch unfair, but just a touch. To get more specific with it, aging Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) takes the mound against the New York Yankees for a mean-nothing game for his team. As team owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) has finalized his plan to sell the team, Chapel knows this will be his last start as a Tiger. It may well be his last time ever on the mound.
But before he’s done, he’s going to flashback through his life over and over, with special emphasis on his relationship with journalist Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), his former girlfriend. So while what seems like the most thrilling performance of his career unfolds, we find ourselves repeatedly ripped from the action to witness the kind of romantic relationship we’ve all had occasion to look back on and think, “well there was a nice middle part of it.”
Of all the films in Sam Raimi’s oeuvre, this feels the least like him (which makes sense, given that this was a director-for-hire job; Sydney Pollack was originally slated to direct). With the exception of his brother Ted playing host at an art gallery show, there exists little to mark this as a Raimi movie. It is rarely funny, there are no Raimi cam shots, and it seems largely unconcerned with the Director’s usual interests.
One should hesitate to say that Raimi simply checked out of this one though. There exists signs of care and effort, even if it’s in service of, well, the cinematic equivalent of Chapel’s Tigers. An investment in creating something special in the midst of a sure to fail effort.
Sound proves far and away the best part of the effort. Jon Title, Wylie Stateman and the rest of the sound department collaborate with Raimi to create a truly impressive soundscape. The use of crowd noise, or the absence of it, helps us chart Chapel’s ability to control the game as well to often make it feel like we are right there with him. It’s impressive technical work and the surest sign (albeit in an unusual way) of Raimi’s usual dedication to getting something just right.
A lot of the sound design, unfortunately, has to compete with Game’s music. Basil Poledouris’s score is as sentimental as they come. It’s almost glorious in its cheesy excess, as though Poledouris set out to push cliché so far up the dial that it nearly becomes its own thing. It lacks any sense of subtlety but there is something adjacent to respectable about just enveloping a movie in a score with that kind of zeal. The bigger issue, by far, is the choices G. Marq Roswell and the rest of the music department make in terms of pop music. Drawing on artists like Steely Dan, Bob Seger, Joan Osborne, Shaggy, and more, the tracks seem to neither fit the on-screen action nor would be useful in moving soundtrack units. The choices often feel ill-fitting to the point of bizarre.
Visually, the film does lack Raimi’s usual aesthetic flourishes. However, he, working with Director of Photographer John Bailey for the first and only time, makes great use of Yankee Stadium and the transition from late afternoon to evening as the innings wear on. So much of the action centers on Costner’s face, but the mix of position and angle manages to never make that aspect of it feel boring or staid. A lot of credit should go to Costner as well. He spends much of those in the park scenes talking to himself and while what he has to say isn’t especially powerful, the actor just sells it. Costner has sometimes gotten written off as not particularly compelling but the fact that he makes the portion of this movie that’s basically a one-man show deserves notice.
Of all the films in Sam Raimi’s oeuvre, this feels the least like him.
When the camera moves to televisions in bars, dorm rooms, and airplane lounges, the lined looked of the old tube televisions becomes an important part of Game’s look too, grounding us in relation to Chapel and the unfolding contest.
During For Love of the Game’s frequent flashbacks though, this attention to detail seems to wane. It never looks bad, but it also doesn’t seem to have much of a vision for everything not connected to the central contest. That the movie can make Yankee Stadium feel so real and alive while making a Costner-Preston walk down a New York City sidewalk feel just this side of a Seinfeld scene points to where the attention and effort were really paid.
The biggest issue with Game comes from the fact that the central romance never feels, well, all that romantic. Costner and Preston have decent enough chemistry, but the script from Dana Stevens (no relation to this reviewer, probably) saddles them with some rough dialogue. This is the kind of movie where one character tells another they’re “the heart and soul of this team” in 100% earnestness. Almost no one can make that kind of a dialogue sing.
It feels like a missed opportunity, too, because when For Love of the Game lets things go looser and more casual, Preston and Costner find some reality in their characters. There is a sex toy joke involving a flashlight that immediately comes to find. It feels real, like how a former teen single mom, now all grown up, and a nearly 40-year-old bachelor would talk to each other after tumbling into bed together. Silly, fun, while still being a bit guarded and performative. Unfortunately, the script prefers to go hard on the melodrama. The result is a relationship that never feels as special as Game seems to want us to believe.
In contrast, compare Billy’s relationship to that of Jane’s daughter Heather (Jena Malone). While Billy and Heather have only 3, maybe 4 scenes together, their late film reunion aches with more heart than Billy and Jane’s airport reconciliation. As a result, the almost-stepfather/stepdaughter dynamic ends up feeling more interesting and realized despite far less time on-screen.
Raimi has certainly made lesser films than For Love of the Game. Movies that looked shoddier or that had weaker plots or poorer construction. None of them, however, felt so un-Raimi. Despite worse entries in the filmography, this probably ends up his most disappointing. It does not feel like an artist growing beyond his usual bag of tricks. It feels like an artist just disappearing into a bland canvas.