Tyrus Raymond Cobb was the stuff of legend. Baseball’s premier hitter, he was a ferocious player on and off the field. He was self-possessed, mean-spirited, a bigot and embodied just about every lowly human quality imaginable. In short, he’s an ideal movie subject.
So, the wonder of wonders of “Cobb” is why writer/director Ron Shelton made a movie that more accurately should be titled “Stump.” The film is essentially the chronicle of how sports scribe Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) was summoned to the bedside of the ailing Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) to write the official bio of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s first inductee.
The two stories aren’t complementary, and Shelton’s periodic shifts of focus result in an ambivalent, conflicted drama. Cobb is a peacock and flamboyant scene stealer while Stump’s dilemma is a crisis of conscience — whether to write the naked truth or print the legend.
Audiences will be confused by what the picture is not. It’s not really about Cobb or baseball or a bygone era. It’s neither character study nor historic drama. It’s ambitious but oblique and unfocused, and only the most generous of viewers will forgive its numerous lapses and vagaries. The film’s prospects of breaking out of a specialized niche are remote.
When Stump arrives at the snowbound Tahoe residence of the great man in 1960, he encounters a pistol-waving, decaying relic.
The one-time Detroit Tiger effortlessly demonstrates that he learned his hateful reputation honestly. He browbeats his chosen Boswell, drags him on a drinking and carousing spree through Reno and expects him to be grateful for anonstop stream of abuse.
It’s unclear just how much sympathy we are to extend the unrepentant and bullying title character. Glimmers of humanity flicker through, and pop-psych references provide hints about the origins of his bad behavior.
But if Cobb is secondary, or merely a catalyst, Shelton fumbles just as badly with Stump. His groveling’s beneath contempt. It’s tough to get behind a guy whose justification for being a toady is that it will enable him to secretly write the “real” story while he feeds his subject pages of the sanitized version.
With such a blighted concept, one can well understand why the two principal actors appear to be struggling with their characters.
Jones plays Cobb on a Shakespearean scale, with obvious parallels between the Georgia Peach and King Lear. But bigger isn’t better; the outsized nature of the interpretation lends the proceedings an unwarranted theatricality.
Wuhl is simply no match for his charismatic co-star. He’s a dedicated second banana.
Shelton gropes for a visual style to fit his material, but winds up with a hodgepodge reflecting different eras and moods. One can sense a keenly personal allegory for the filmmaker in this subject. It’s also likely too painful for him to address head on, ultimately rendering a remote and impenetrable drama.