For Love of the Game (1999)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Cast: Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, Jena Malone, John C. Reilly, Brian Cox.
1999 138 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 18, 1999.
What can really be said about "For Love of the Game," Kevin Costner's third (and most likely final) film in his "Baseball Trilogy," aside from that Costner probably should have stopped while he was ahead? Mixing every cliche that could possibly have been dreamt up, the film is such a sappy, self-important mess that, by the time the supposed-to-be moving climax crawled around, I almost felt physically sick by the overpowering syrup that had been thrust upon me in the last 138 minutes. Moving at a lugubrious, needlessly slow pace, and with characters that couldn't possibly be any less underwritten and lifeless, the film is ultilmately a cinematic dead zone, and one of the most ineptly-written high-profile pictures of the year. The fact that Sam Raimi, director of 1982's cult horror classic, "The Evil Dead," and 1998's taut thriller, "A Simple Plan," is at the helm here only disheartens you to an even greater extent.
"For Love of the Game" is a flashback-laden heart-tugger (read: patience-puller) with one of the most drug-out framing devices I have seen. Beginning in NYC where 40-year-old pro baseball player for the Detroit Tigers, Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner), is set to take on the Yankees, he unexpectedly has an early-morning confrontation with his girlfriend of five years, Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), who tells him that she is taking a job in London, and will be on the six o'clock flight out of New York. Later, Billy discovers that the Tigers have been sold, and his contract has run out, so this impending game with the Yankees quickly is transformed into a life-altering moment for him. A lot is riding on him pitching well, and as the crowds from the stands yell out to him that his career is over, the first of about six or seven elongated flashbacks begin (and this is at least at the 30-minute mark!). Oh, it almost slipped my mind; while waiting on her delayed flight at the airport, Jane can't seem to escape the game that is playing on every television in the lobby and cafe, and reluctantly is swept away in it, along with just about every other person in the whole airport. Exchanging her flight for a later one so she can see the last few innings, Jane begins to have doubts if she should even leave, after all. To make a long story short, the flashbacks begin five years before, when Billy and Jane first meet and hop into bed together that same night. Because of his constant moving-around due to his profession, Jane only gets to see him once every few weeks or even months, and, truth be told, they don't really seem to ever even like each other, but they stick things out--through the good and the bad. All of this takes place in the first year or two after they meet; the next three years that led up to the present-day story, however, are practically skipped over, and the conclusion, which you will be able to predict from the first five minutes, includes Billy winning the big game, his own self-worth, and, yep, you guessed it, the girl.
If Kevin Costner really does have a love for the game of baseball, why would he agree to make something so shamelessly weepy and manipulative, in which not more than one or two scenes are even credible, and the rest is pure fantasy-land? The baseball game sequences are overblown and offensively exploitative, just in order to get the audience to cry from sympathy, and then joy. Instead of giving the viewer the benefit of the doubt that they will be able to figure out Billy's inner conflict, screenwriter Dana Stevens deserves to be locked in a vault somewhere, as two sport commentators are written to say things like, "40-year-old Billy Chapel is pitching against time," as the music score swells and the last inning comes to a close. After winning, we get shots of Yankees fans who had previously been hounding him, say things like, "You pitched alright, Billy Chapel. You did good!" [Insert rolling of eyes and smacks to the forehead here]. Do Stevens or director Sam Raimi actually believe that they made a worthy film that is truthful to the characters and the story? If so, their views are severely distorted from reality.
If the sports scene are inanely-portrayed, the romance flashbacks aren't much better. Instead of developing the relationship between Billy and Jane, what we get is one make-out/mild bed scene right at the start, and in almost every other scene between the two, they are either fighting or arguing or the subjects of an elaborate music montage that signals the passing of time. Since there are no less than five montages in the film, shouldn't Billy and Jane have been old, gray-haired fogies by the climax? Scene after scene we watch these two attractive stars, but without a trace of any sharp writing to support them, aside from conversations that are linked exclusively to the plot, what we really have are two attractive stars who have zero chemistry and are so dull and uninteresting as individuals that pairing them up means only one thing: a motion picture disaster.
Kevin Costner is adequate as Billy Chapel, who has "mid-life crisis" written over his forehead like a neon sign, but why should we care about someone with no distinguishable qualities or interests, outside of baseball? Kelly Preston, an underrated actress whom I have defended several times with her last few pictures, finally has a real clunker here. Obviously some of the fault must lie in Raimi's first real embarrassing directing job, but Preston overacts and whines her way through her non-descript role, and is so annoying that I can't believe anyone would be able to stand being around her character of Jane for longer than five minutes, let alone five years! Always off on trips, when we find that Jane actually has a teenage daughter, Heather (Jena Malone), midway through, it comes as somewhat of a surprise. Frantically calling Billy up on the phone, Jane tells him that Heather has run away to her father's home in Boston. Weighing in all the evidence, I don't blame Heather, as her mother obviously doesn't care about her, and is always skipping town, leaving her home by herself for long periods of time. Additionally, Jane literally only says two lines to Heather, her very own daughter, in the whole film: "Don't ever run away again," and, "Would you like some spaghetti?" That's it, and I'm not exaggerating.
As Heather, Jena Malone (1998's "Stepmom") gives the only performance in the film that is worth mentioning in a positive manner. At only 13 or 14-years-old, Malone is believable as she ages in the film from a young teen to a college student, and is given the one and only good scene, in which she spots Billy while at the University of South Carolina, and has a brief, warm exchange of words with him. So strong is Malone, in fact, that it is sorely disappointing to find that she is otherwise wasted and thrown to the way-side, so that we can instead watch two dim-witted stick figures fall (artificially) in love.
"For Love of the Game" piles on the cheese and corn and honey-sap so thickly that the film, at times, seems to be in danger of being smothered to death, which would have been fine with me. Without anything smart, witty, exciting, or truly romantic to offer, one is left wondering not only who the film was made for (only the most undiscriminating viewers could be won over by this "product-on-autopilot"), but what exactly the point was. In a late scene in which Billy sits on a bed and weeps, we are supposed to feel sorry for him, but why? A popular veteran baseball player who has just won the game of his life, should we come to the conclusion that he is crying for Jane, and if so, why? She has no admirable personality traits, and he would be better off without such an uptight priss. Of course, I could also say he has no admirable personality traits, and she would be better off without such an uptight priss. The only question that "For Love of the Game" left me pondering was, how are we supposed to care about two central characters who would be far better off joining screenwriter Dana Stevens? You know, locked away in that vault I mentioned.
©1999 by Dustin Putman