The real-life misadventures of central figures in the 2013 Major League Baseball doping scandal play like outrageous twists and turns in the seriocomic crime fiction of Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard throughout “Screwball,” an impudently entertaining documentary that suggests what might result if the Monty Python troupe were given carte blanche to produce an investigative report for “60 Minutes.”
It comes to us from Billy Corben, a filmmaker whose previous chronicles of illicit activity and entrepreneurial drug traders in and around Miami (“Cocaine Cowboys,” “Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja”) might now be viewed as warm-up pitches for his latest effort. This time on the mound, he throws heat and scores impressively with help from a lineup that includes baseball All-Stars, mob-connected lowlifes, tanning and bodybuilding enthusiasts, free-spending MLB investigators, and an unlicensed anti-aging expert whose lack of bona fide medical credentials scarcely hindered his ability to provide, one way or the other, performance-enhancing drugs for his clients. The latter shady character, Anthony Bosch, emerges early on as Corben’s most valuable player, in that his astonishingly unfiltered (albeit chronically self-justifying) account of his starring role in the doping scandal makes him the indisputable standout among the movie’s cast of colorful interviewees.
Armed with the authorized prescription pad of his aged Cuban immigrant physician father, Bosch — who repeatedly insists on camera that his degree from a Belize diploma mill really and truly qualifies him as a doctor — found a ready market for his “services” (i.e., injecting hard-to-detect micro-doses of steroids) even before his grand opening (in a Coral Gables, Fla., strip mall) of Biogenesis of America, a health clinic that purportedly specialized in weight loss and hormone replacement. His clientele included cops, bodybuilders, and amateur and professional athletes. (It’s mildly shocking, but not altogether surprising, when “Screwball” reveals that parents sought chemical enhancement for offspring competing as high school football and baseball players.) Chief among his satisfied customers: outfielder Manny Ramirez, whose dramatic improvement as a slugger attracted the attention of another prominent Major Leaguer, Alex Rodriguez, who, according to Bosch, approached the “specialist” with a blunt-spoken request: “I want whatever Manny was taking.”
“Screwball” doesn’t let anyone off easy, least of all then-commissioner Bud Selig and other MLB officials who turned a blind eye during the years when most other reasonably sentient observers suspected crowd-pleasing (and TV ratings-boosting) sluggers like Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco were relying on ’roids to bulk up. By the time MLB investigators — with an apparently unlimited budget for buying evidence and/or testimony — finally did arrive in Florida to check out Biogenesis, Bosch had connected with his own private steroid manufacturer, allied himself with well-connected mobsters behind a string of 24-hour tanning salons, consumed (by his own admission) massive qualities of cocaine, and made the serious mistake of cheating a silent partner, “professional tanner” Porter Fischer, who obtained enough incriminating evidence to accelerate Bosch’s downward spiral.
Fischer, an ingratiating lug who turns out to be somewhat smarter than he initially seems, is almost as arresting (and uninhibited) a storyteller as Bosch while he recounts his early eagerness to be part of what he viewed as the Biogenesis miracle, his subsequent disillusionment, and his sometimes crafty, sometimes klutzy campaign of payback.
Other interviewees — including Miami New Times journalist Tim Elfrink, ESPN correspondent Pedro Gomez, and former Miami health inspector Jerome Hill — fill in gaps and otherwise supplement a weirder-than-fiction narrative that proceeds like a rapid-fire series of interlocking absurdities and Pythonesque blackout sketches. (Among the comic highlights: Bosch’s jaw-dropping stories about making the equivalent of cross-country house calls for Ramirez and Rodriguez.)
Even as “Screwball” nudges its audience toward extending at least grudging sympathy to Bosch — whose resemblance to former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen is merely one of the movie’s jarring elements — Corben never attempts to excuse the bad behavior of anyone involved in this sordid tale of greed, hubris and undisciplined excess. Indeed, he emphasizes the utter childishness of his subjects by sprinkling “Screwball” with dramatized re-enactments of key events cast with actual children playing nominal grown-ups.
That might sound like a heavy-handed gimmick, but it works surprisingly and consistently well as a storytelling flourish for a documentary that does not traffic in subtleties or moral indignation while repeatedly and boisterously posing the question: “Can you believe these people actually did this?” At the very end, when someone looks straight into the camera and exclaims, “You can’t make this shit up,” viewers may find themselves reflexively nodding in bemused agreement and deep appreciation.