As all-American and all-Hollywood as a movie can get in the late ’90s, “For Love of the Game” represents a modest personal comeback for star Kevin Costner, in the best combo of his strengths as romantic lead and athletic guy since Ron Shelton’s “Tin Cup.” This marks a kind of capper on Costner’s baseball trilogy, from the minor leagues of “Bull Durham” to the fantasy of “Field of Dreams” to this highly uneven study of an aging vet in his swan-song game in the bigs. Baseball fans will think they’re in heaven: A pic has finally nailed the actual playing of the Grand Old Game with remarkable realism, while fans of helmer Sam Raimi will be in shock at the ramrod-straight style and storytelling. While incurring star’s public wrath at trimming scenes (for both length and to obtain PG-13 rating, claims Costner), Universal is opening pic at baseball’s seasonal primetime and should pull in both sports-addicted males and women looking for a semi-mature love story. B.O. RBI are going to be mostly Stateside, with little interest in non-baseball territories — which is most of the planet.
Few genres have consistently landed in the cellar as often as baseball movies, and no pic — other than “Bull Durham” — has captured the absurdly funny nature and characters of the sport. “For Love of the Game” ignores the game’s grit and eccentricities in favor of a mood of valedictory romance, both for the game and for its lead characters, and this choice will surely turn off sports-fan moviegoers who favor the ribald Shelton approach.
Though hiring of baseball fan Raimi proves crucial in his intensely physical approach to visualizing the game — particularly in staging and framing of major-league-quality fastballs and curveballs, a first in movie history — pic’s overly conservative and ultra-serious manner has the fingerprints of Costner (whose Tig Prods. was a co-producer) all over it. Not only fans of the game will note that pic’s game sequences far overwhelm its off-the-field love yarn.
Pic grabs nostalgic heartstrings instantly with an elegiac title-seg montage blending home movies and graphics of young Michigan little leaguer Billy Chapel growing up and making it to the majors with the Detroit Tigers. Per many superstar throwers, Chapel (Costner) has his own designated catcher in Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly). Sinski’s against manager Frank Perry’s (J.K. Simmons) decision to pitch Chapel against the contending New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium — especially since the last-place Tigers’ season is over — but Chapel’s life soon gives him motivation.
In a set of contrived and unconvincingly compacted plot moves, which scribe Dana Stevens took faithfully from Michael Shaara’s brief, posthumously published novel, Chapel is stood up by his g.f., fashion mag columnist Jane (Kelly Preston), and informed by Tigers owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) that he’s selling the club to a corporate group whose first plan is to trade Chapel to the San Francisco Giants. The knife is twisted further as he meets morose Jane in Central Park and learns she’s moving to London for a new journalism gig and that, in any case, he needs the game more than he needs her.
Dialogue is as pat as this sounds, and once Chapel and the Tigers move to the ballpark, it lacks the profanely salty nature of baseball gab. Instead, mood is somber and cerebral, as Chapel gets on the mound knowing this may be his last game and mentally rewinding the key events of his past five years. Effect of Chapel talking to himself and opposing hitters is both corny and close to feel of a Gary Cooper star turn, as in “Pride of the Yankees.”
Inevitable flashback-flashforward structure takes over. Raimi and Stevens display affection for the central couple, but a barely-there chemistry between Costner and Preston deflates the sexual and emotional energy. He’s tight-lipped enough for the two of them, and it takes a mannered scene pulled off with aplomb by young thesp Jena Malone as Jane’s teen daughter, Heather, to inform Chapel that Jane “has never had a love story.” Once Chapel finally visits Jane and Heather’s funky home, in a splendidly quiet domestic scene that recalls some of Raimi’s best work in “A Simple Plan,” it looks like they’re going to be a family.
Considerably more drama builds back at Yankee Stadium, as Chapel is throwing heat and tossing a perfect game into the sixth inning. Mental duels with individual hitters are not as wrenching as they could be, but a complete verisimilitude of play in the field, plus a marvelously apt play-by-play commentary by (voice of the Dodgers) Vin Scully and Fox TV’s Steve Lyons sweeps us up. In classic Hollywood fashion, pic inserts plenty of heart-stopping plays to keep Chapel’s perfect game on tenterhooks.
Amid this, the indecisive nature of Chapel’s and Jane’s relationship eventually becomes more frustrating than rewarding, and lacking even the juice of a Hollywood meller.
Costner is as uneven as the storytelling itself, stone cold at moments, shimmeringly real in others. He is best as an athlete struggling with the fact that his time is nearly over. As a love interest, he has always shone when he is most vulnerable, but he falls short of that here. As a woman who goes through perceptible changes of heart, Preston navigates an underwritten role that nevertheless has loads of screen time. Supporters are all game, from Reilly’s good-guy blue-collar catcher and Cox’s brief but strong turn as the owner to Simmons’ quietly strong manager and Malone in her best perf to date.
Tech credits raise several moments to majestic heights, powered most significantly by Steve Maslow and Gregg Landaker’s brilliant sound mix and John Bailey’s characteristically bright and crisp lensing.