For Love of the Game (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner's third baseball related movie, is appropriately named. Unlike the romantic comedy Bull Durham and the allegorical Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game requires a basic understanding of and affinity for baseball in order for it to attain its maximum impact. That doesn't mean that a viewer who lacks an appreciation of the sport can't enjoy the film, but baseball aficionados will take more away from this movie than those who have never seen a game, read a box score, or followed a pennant race.

The best parts of For Love of the Game are those that take place on the field. Crafted with respect for the game and an eye towards accuracy, they represent some of the most true-to-life baseball moments ever presented in a non-documentary form on celluloid. When For Love of the Game is between the white lines, it is brilliant. Unfortunately, that only happens about 50% of the time. The rest of the film tells a rather corny love story that is occasionally hamstrung by ripe dialogue. The romantic angle is necessary to the overall plot because it provides a sense of balance in the main character's life (not to mention its importance in drawing from a larger demographic to build the audience), but it is not written or developed as well as the baseball aspect. And, while I don't think the romance is horribly presented, it's undeniable that a little less sentimentality would have resulted in a genuinely powerful movie with a stronger conclusion.

Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel, a pitcher who has thrown every major league pitch in his 19 year career for the Detroit Tigers. When the team won the World Series in 1984, Chapel was a big part of the victory. Lately, however, he has sensed the approach of the end. For his team, this has not been a good year, and the baseball gods haven't been kind to him, either - his record is a lackluster 8-11. Now, the team's owner has informed him that if he doesn't retire after today's game, the season finale against the Yankees in New York, he will be traded.

Weary in body, Billy takes the mound and gives it everything he has. As the innings go by, his mind drifts back through the last five years, recalling the only love of his life besides baseball. She is Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), and she has just broken things off with him so she can go to England to advance her career. Billy remembers key moments in their relationship - the first time they met, their "agreement" not to get too serious, the time she surprised him at Spring Training when he was with another woman, and the night he rescued her teenage daughter (Jena Malone). Then, as the number of outs remaining drops into the single digits, everyone in the stadium, from the beer-guzzling fans in the stands to the announcers in the booth (Vin Scully and Steve Lyons), recognizes that Billy has a chance to pitch a perfect game. For seven innings, no one has gotten on base. But, as anyone who watches baseball knows, the last six outs are always the hardest.

Baseball is a humbling game. Today's hero could be tomorrow's goat. The outfielder who makes a game-saving catch on Friday night might drop a ball or ground into a double play on Saturday afternoon. For actor Kevin Costner, the movie-making business has been just as humbling. Only one decade ago, Costner was one of Hollywood's most sought-after actors - a leading man with proven box office clout. His directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, was beloved by both the critics and the public, and, in addition to winning seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), grossed more than $500 million worldwide. However, just eight years later, Costner is Hollywood's whipping boy. He is blamed for the excesses of Waterworld, and his sophomore stint behind the camera, The Postman, is a rightful object of derision. For Love of the Game is the actor's attempt at a comeback - it plays to his strengths. Costner has never been a great emoter, but his athleticism and screen presence allow him to be credible when on the mound.

Kelly Preston (aka Mrs. John Travolta) does a competent job as the female lead, but she's not a standout. She and Costner develop a warm on-screen rapport, but there's not much in the way of heat or heavy duty chemistry between them. In supporting roles, John C. Reilly is believable as the Tigers' veteran catcher (who calls a great game, but can't hit); Jena Malone (Stepmom) is Jane's daughter, and J.K. Simmons plays the Tigers' manager with the right mix of irascibility and supportiveness.

The director of For Love of the Game is Sam Raimi. For most of his career, Raimi has been something of a cult figure, and is still probably best known for directing the low-budget horror/comedy Evil Dead trilogy. His dark superhero tale, Darkman, also has a small but loyal following. Raimi broke into new territory last year with the taut thriller, A Simple Plan. For Love of the Game is his first big-budget, mainstream production, and it represents a solid effort. The director especially deserves credit for the verisimilitude of the baseball sequences.

The film's structure - cutting back and forth between the final game of the season and the flashback highlights of Billy and Jane's romance - works. The problem is that the script isn't as smart or insightful when it deals with a man's love for a woman as it is when it concentrates on that same man's love for baseball. I don't know whether the flaw is in the source material (a novel by Michael Shaara, the author of The Killer Angels, which was used as the basis for the 1993 movie, Gettysburg) or in Dana Stevens' adaptation, but it diminishes the overall viewing experience.

There are many things I like about For Love of the Game. In the first place, the film understands which baseball clich├ęs to keep and which to throw out. There is no World Series to win, nor is the chronicled game especially big (at least not at the beginning). We're not being faced with a character making a comeback; instead, this is a man in the dying twilight of a great career. I can recall the final ballgames of great pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan, and it's a bittersweet thing. Finally, by the careful use of foreshadowing that hints at both possible outcomes (a perfect game or not), Raimi maintains tension nearly to the end.

In many ways, For Love of the Game is an old fashioned motion picture. Although it acknowledges the state of the game today ("Everything has changed - the players, the fans, TV rights, arbitration..."), it views the sport with the respect it once had when it was America's Pastime. My enduring image of baseball is of an older man and a young boy sitting together on a porch at dusk. It's a balmy August evening, and the air is full of fireflies. Crickets and locusts chirp their nighttime symphony, but the noise can't drown out the play-by-play coming from a transistor radio. That's the spirit embraced by this movie. Today, winning has become everything. No one seems to care about the simple rhythm of nine innings. As baseball movies go, this one isn't a home run - it's more of a single or a double. But, as any fan knows, that's still a hit, and it can generate some excitement.

For Love of the Game (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 1999-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1