This review was corrected on Apr. 8, 2002.
Inspired by the right-field stands of Wrigley Field and first pitched on the boards of Chicago’s Organic Theater Co. in 1977, when the Cubbies were perennial also-rans, Showtime gives “Bleacher Bums” a production as leisurely and gently provocative as a nine-inning game. It has its moments of drama, but generally it unfolds in an orderly, unassuming manner. This set of “Bums,” however, is made eminently watchable by the alternately cantankerous and sullen bettors played by Wayne Knight, Brad Garrett and Peter Riegert. Their perfs supplant the minor-league baseball stagings and occasionally ponderous direction of Saul Rubinek.
Zig (Knight of “Seinfeld” and “Third Rock From the Sun”), Marvin (Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Decker (Riegert) are the driving forces behind this drama of men with nothing better to do with their lives than attend day games and root for their hapless Bruins. (Producers did not acquire the rights to use the words Cubs and Wrigley, and telepic maintains the romantic fantasy of day baseball.) Telepic doesn’t use baseball as a metaphor about life as so many pics about the game do; “Bums” relies on the ballpark simply as a meeting place for tales of romance, family and sacrificed dreams.
Zig, given a kinetic energy by Knight, has never seen a bet he didn’t like, especially when proffered by the cool Marvin, who collects big by never taking the Bruins. Zig’s wife, Rose (Mary Walsh), a collector of ceramic figurines, shows up at the game with the intention of cooling his betting and instead joins in, taking the opposite tack of her husband by placing C notes on whether a runner will score. Simultaneously, Decker’s relationship with his son Joey (Jeff Geddis), a budding fusion-jazz musician whose monetary needs keep him tethered to the family, weaves in and out of the action, with Decker succeeding and failing as a parent and a gambler.
Marvin is a marvelously controlled agitator who boils only when he can’t elicit any action out of the bums who surround him. The crew that populates the stands is dominated by Rupert the cheerleader (Stephen Markle), an out-of-control obsessive whose statistical and personal knowledge of ballplayers stretches so far he gets his benchmates to bet on whether he can razz the St. Louis right fielder Keough (Denny Berni) to entice him to climb into the stands. Though they’re all regulars, this appears to be the first time Rupert is swapping shoptalk with blind observer Greg (Matt Craven), who’s busy making time with Melody (Sarrin Boylan), a bikini’d young woman attempting to attract the attention of the TV cameras.
A rain delay interrupts the game, sending Joey into the streets (the rest of the crew stays) where he gets invited by the scorekeepers (Charles Durning and Maury Chaykin) to come inside the manually operated big board. Scene’s existence seems tied only to the long-held rumor that the scoreboard operators “have broads up there.” Later he has a chance to tell his father the truth — that it’s two old guys making inane bets, just like the guys in the bleachers — but in the spirit of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he lets the legend live on.
Nothing really happens in the course of these nine innings. There’s the superficial disappointment of a team losing a game, but the more human aspects of these players get far subtler treatment. Zig and Rose re-evaluate their marriage; Decker and son leave on speaking terms after bailing out their friend Richie (Hal Sparks), making him feel like he’s not such a loser; and the big winner on the day, Marvin, is alone. All the emotional payoffs are far too predictable and the actual ending, tied to Rupert being tossed from the game, plays like a bad goofball comedy.
David Buchbinder’s blues-based music provides a nice energy through most of the pic, though it becomes rather cloying at the end. Outside shots of the Wrigley stand-in (Lakeview Field) and the actual bleachers are convincing in a way the on-field action isn’t. It might have made for a more interesting — and certainly shorter — film if auds never saw the diamond. Casting in all the speaking roles is top-notch.