Cobb (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's the nature of our society to put people on pedestals. Some wear the title of "hero" like a mantle; to others, it is an albatross. You need look no further than the O.J. Simpson story to see this. So what defines greatness? This question, in conjunction with the reality gap that so often exists between the media's portrayal of a public figure and their actual personality, lies at the core of Cobb, a new film from writer/director Ron Shelton, the man who brought us the baseball comedy Bull Durham.

Cobb is a character study of the greatest man ever to play Major League baseball. It is not a biography, though it contains biographical (or pseudo-biographical, depending on how much you want to believe) information. Rather, the film is an examination of Ty Cobb's personality -- a look at the demons that made him as much of a terror off the baseball field as on it, and which didn't depart once his career was over.

A notorious drunkard, bigot, and womanizer, the "Georgia Peach" had few qualities to praise other than his ability to hit a baseball. He claimed to be misunderstood, but the sad truth is that he was understood too well. Described at various times as "difficult at best, psychotic at worst" and someone whose "brooding soul...bubbled with violence", Cobb represented the kind of man who could be admired only from a distance -- the farther the better.

In 1960, with death stalking him, Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) decides that he wants his story told. To write this tale of a "prince among men", he recruits sportswriter Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) to do the typing. At first, Stump is ecstatic at the opportunity to spend days on end with the greatest baseball player of all time -- until he meets him, that is. Cobb's poisonous personality quickly convinces him that little pleasure will be derived from the task. Yet, despite continual verbal and physical abuse, Stump stays with Cobb, and even drives him across country from his Nevada home to Cooperstown. Friendship is never the lure, however; Stump is seduced by the need to understand greatness. And, in the end, he compromises his principles to capture his own small measure of it.

With a lead character as abrasive as they come, Cobb is not always a pleasant movie. At times, it is downright uncomfortable. The film is perhaps too long; much of the last half-hour feels excessive and redundant. Nevertheless, given such a forceful anti-hero, the viewer's horrified fascination lasts all one-hundred twenty-eight minutes, even to the end of the credits when Cobb declares, "Baseball is 100% of my life."

Jones' on-target portrayal of the dying athlete is mesmerizing. Robert Wuhl has considerably less screen presence, but this serves only to highlight Jones. Wuhl gives his co-star someone to play off of. There is a share of male bonding here, but not enough to turn Cobb into a cloying buddy picture. And, thankfully, the title character is never redeemed. Cobb remains detestable to the day of his death.

Shelton took a chance with this film. Given a less talented performer, Cobb could have been an awkward, over-the-top melodrama. As it is, however, the movie works much as Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle does -- as an unobstructed view of human degradation and the damage it wreaks.

Forrest Gump might say that "Greatness is as greatness does." Cobb goes to pains to dispel this simplistic view. Image has little to do with reality. Tremendous statistics do not make for a tremendous person. When our heroes turn out to be less like Dale Murphy and more like Ty Cobb, we feel betrayed and slighted. On those occasions, we have only ourselves to blame because in our society, it's the .367 lifetime batting average that earns the reverence, regardless of how despicable the man holding the bat is.

Cobb (United States, 1994)

Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich
Screenplay: Ron Shelton based on Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1