Film Review: ‘The Phenom’

'The Phenom' review: Ethan Hawke, Paul
Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Johnny Simmons plays a troubled rookie pitcher tussling with bad daddy Ethan Hawke in a muddled drama of sports therapy.

A a time when the cachet of talk therapy continues on its long slow downward spiral (so much more time-consuming, and déclassé, than the mood-altering drugs marketed by Big Pharma), movies about the wonders of baring your soul to a doctor who’s been paid to care are not exactly in high demand. HBO, of course, did its bit to stir up the drama of therapy with “The Sopranos” and “In Treatment.” But it’s now a different world from the one where ordinary people once sought out movies like “Ordinary People.” When you watch “The Phenom,” about a superstar Major League rookie pitcher who is having control issues, you think you’re in for a baseball story, but it’s really a movie about how a guy who throws five wild pitches in one inning needs to heal on the inside.

Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), just out of high school, can serve up a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, but he’s a mess. After his wild-pitch debacle, he’s sent down to the minors, but the team that drafted him wants to make good on its investment. And so they call in Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a sports therapist so celebrated that he was once on the cover of Time magazine. The movie opens on an early session between Hopper and Mobley, a mensch in a cardigan sweater who talks a good game. He knows just how to slip in a flattering comparison between Hopper and Sandy Koufax, and he does his best to explore why the kid, instead of concentrating on the mound, started to tune into the far-away voice of a soda-pop vendor. Hopper, though, isn’t really buying. He’s played by Johnny Simmons, whose big-eyed baby face belies that Hopper is a buttoned-up prodigy, a slightly blank creature of his era who doesn’t trust the inner life.

The movie flashes back to Hopper’s senior year, when he’s the number-one-ranked pitching prospect in the nation. His problems don’t seem all that extreme (a teacher who nags him about taking his studies seriously, a girlfriend who doesn’t think baseball is all that), but then daddy shows up. He’s a drug dealer who has just gotten out of prison, with no apparent plans to alter his career choice, and he’s played by Ethan Hawke in a ’70s-greaser flattop and the usual spray of tattoos, one of which might as well read, “I, and I alone, am the explanation for all of this boy’s conflicts and difficulties.” Hawke, who has been trying to work more and more on the high wire (he gave a brilliant and very un-Hawke-ish performance as Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue”), is too good an actor to make Hopper Sr. a less than authentic presence. He gives him the aggressively off-kilter, defensive rhythms of a macho loser criminal who is sealed inside his bubble of dickwad anger. But his attitude toward his son is so openly abusive — he calls him a wuss, beans him with a beer can, and tears his pitching to shreds, all out of transparent jealousy — that when Hopper’s mother (Alison Elliott) arrives home and treats the marriage as if it were still a marriage, we think there’s a mistake in the script. Hawke’s dangerous lout of a father and husband is a plot device more than he is a character.

It’s not necessary, of course, for “The Phenom” to be an all-out sports drama, but writer-director Noah Buschel sets up the rare opportunity to explore what makes a jock tick, then doesn’t follow through. You never truly feel as if you’re inside the head and heart of a baseball player. Instead, the overwhelming quality of Hopper’s daddy issues just makes him a Guy Who Doesn’t Believe In Himself, and will he get over it, and if so, how? There’s one odd but definitely of-its-moment scene in which Hopper, after having Googled his famous shrink, righteously pelts him with all the unadmirable things he’s learned about him, like the fact that one of his most famous clients committed suicide, which spurred the doc into an alcoholic descent. The scene comes off as the film’s way of saying, “Take that, psychiatric-industrial complex! You shrinks are human too!” They certainly are, but that’s still a shaky point on which to hang the emotional crux of your movie when the promise of therapy is more or less the only salvation that it has offered. If “The Phenom” were a pitch, it would be a change-up, one that doesn’t land anywhere near the strike zone.

Film Review: 'The Phenom'

Reviewed on-line, New York, June 23, 2016. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production

An RLJ Entertainment release of a Best Pitcher production in association with Bron Capital Partners, Crystal Wealth. Produced by Jeff Rice, Jeff Elliott, Antonia Bogdanovich, Kim Jose. Executive producers, Pascal Borno, Jason Cloth, Aaron L. Gilbert, Don Mandrik, Alan Saretsky, Gregory P. Shockro, Yul Vazquez. Co-producers, Louise Lovegrove. Co-executive producer, Lee Broda.

Crew

Directed, written by Noah Buschel; camera, Ryan Samul (color); production designer, Sam Lisenco; costume designer, Anney Perrine; music, Aleks de Carvalho; casting, Billy Hopkins.

With

Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Alison Elliott, Lousie Krause, Paul Adelstein, Marin Ireland, John Ventimigia, Frank Wood.

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  1. GregMals says:

    Absolutely dreadful movie. The premise and the shooting style gave this film so much promise. It’s almost like the filmmaker lost his notes halfway through shooting. The back and forth between Simmons and Giammatti is fairly good but the movies actually path is inconsistent and lacks any sort of depth. It’s an hour and a half I will never get back.

  2. Wired In says:

    I disagree with this article. Especially the part about psychology being presented as the only savior for the kid. It wasn’t. While the mental coach does instruct him to do so, it was having fun and remembering when he enjoyed the sport and his conversation with Hopper Sr. at the end. The last conversation being the final closure as he has a conversation not related to baseball for the first time we see.

  3. Ry says:

    This is actually the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I’d really like that 1hr and 27 min back it stole from my life…..

  4. janet g evans says:

    I am a therapist and found The Phenom to be one of the most realistic and most pro therapy movies I have ever seen. Owen G. saying that he thought the film was saying “Take that, psychiatric-industrial complex! You shrinks are human too!” is one of the more embarrassing and blatant misreads of a movie that I have ever seen in a professional paper. I am actually shocked. If he did not like the movie he should have at least reviewed the movie instead of making up things. Ridiculous and embarrassing.

    • Wired In says:

      Agreed

    • Rebecca says:

      I agree, the misread of the movie by Owen G is crazy. The therapist previously explained projection to the audience and Hopper was making progress in that scene. Unbelievable that Owen didn’t see his own “projection” in his quote.

  5. Terry Grant says:

    “Phenom”!!! Regardless of the plot or wether it is a baseball movie, a character study of a troubled athlete, or the relationship between a never was envious father and his phenom son. I think it missed on too many levels. First it is very disappointing baseball wise. Simmons pitching ability in no way resembled a phenom who throws 98 mph, his mechanics are horrible and his velocity couldn’t break glass let alone resemble a 98mph fastball. They could have at least taught him to throw properly using cut in footage of a real 98 mph fastball or used a double to throw. Giamatti’s character comparing the right handed Hopper Gibson to Sandy Koufax, who many consider the greatest “left handed” pitcher in history demonstrates Bushel’s complete ignorance of baseball. Second, his father is just too stereotypical, very one dimensional, too conveniently and simply wrapped up for me. Lastly, the girlfriend and her parents, other than serving as a mouthpiece/platform to allow Bushel a to spew his socialist rhetoric, why? I am still scratching my head trying to discern what if anything they had to do with shaping Hopper’s troubled mind.

    • janet g evans says:

      The characters were talking about Koufax seeing the crowd when he couldn’t focus on the catcher. It had nothing to do with whether Koufax was a righty or lefty. Holy Cow, Terry Grant.

  6. Wes Isa Leo says:

    I agree w/ many previous posts. The reviewer apparently thought they were going to see a movie about a phenom who overcomes bad past experiences and wins the World Series.

    And then wrote a negative review that includes trite descriptions. “Doesn’t come near the strike zone. Get it? GET IT?!? Ah ha ha ha HA HA HA!!!” People get paid for such tripe?

  7. James Joyce says:

    You are correct – the father character could easily have been written as a more complex individual – instead we get this 1-D douche – I guess writers no longer trust audiences

    Kinda sad – if they got a hold of Achilles from the Iliad – he would be totally emo – wait they already did and he turned in Brad Pitt

    • Wired In says:

      Growing up playing sports and witnessing fathers like this with their sons who were exceptional — the portrayal of Hopper Sr. was eerily similar.

      This was a movie about the psychoses behind having such an amazing talent and needing to bring the other levels of mental fortitude to this level of greatness. As explicitly explained by the teacher and her warning him about becoming too much like the father.. In-fact, not doing so starts effecting the talent itself. This was not a movie about winning the World Series.

    • Wes Isa Leo says:

      Hawke’s character was exactly that: a 1-D douche “Uncle Rico” knob-end who couldn’t stay out of trouble. His boy showed true character by visiting the man who tried to vicariously re-live what little glory he experienced in his past by tormenting his talented son…and we see ol’ Dad break down in the end while trying to remain a bad-ass and looking extremely shallow.

      The reviewer is way off in his glib review of this excellent gem. Performances all first-rate and certainly more memorable than cliched fluff like “Trouble with the Curve.”

  8. bery says:

    interesting movie showing how serious mental illness is and it can be affected by others…. But they sure do talk a lot.!

  9. Debbie says:

    I have to agree with other comments here. Owen G basically exposes himself when he says he expected a baseball story. That is what bad film critics do. Write a review based on what they thought they were going to see.

  10. Dame Sails says:

    Saw the movie, read your review. Did not understand what movie you saw. Found this quote from Noah Buschel interview that seemed much more in line with what I actually saw: “The Phenom is not about fathers and sons or baseball. When I was putting together Ethan’s character, it was a question of what would the judge inside Hopper’s mind be like. We’re in flashbacks, in Hopper’s mind. So to me, Ethan is playing the judge in Hopper’s mind more than he is the father. The movie is about melting our own judge. Giamatti mentions that Hopper Jr. is projecting his shadow onto Hopper Sr. The movie is about dealing with our own shadow. Not someone else’s. Sometimes when we have a judge inside, it manifests externally. It’s funny to me that some people have said it’s a baseball movie about an abusive dad. This movie is more influenced by the sitcom Herman’s Head than Fear Strikes Out. Actually I’ve never seen Fear Strikes Out. The Phenom is just about the judge in our own mind. That’s all.”

  11. Dunn says:

    This review is a classical example of a critic reviewing his expectations for a movie rather than the movie itself. So sad. Having seen four of Noah Buschel’s movies now I doubt he has interest in “what makes a jock tick.” This movie is not about baseball or jocks. “Take that psychiatric industrial complex!” What? Idiotic. The movie is if anything pro therapy. Giamatti’s character is a flawed phenom like every character in the movie. Pathetic film criticism. “Hawke’s character is a plot device.” This movie doesn’t even really have a plot. It isn’t a plot-driven movie. The problem is the critic is reviewing his expectations and what he has seen before. Instead of the original movie it is. So pathetic.

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