Monday, April 2, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #5 - Bull Durham

Sports in movies are often difficult undertakings.  There are a handful of basketball films out there that capture the truth of the sport.  Football movies are perhaps the most difficult to interpret dramatically, as the velocity and energy of the game translates poorly into staged scenes.  Soccer and Hockey have had their moments on film but these are few and far between.  Baseball, on the other hand, has a pacing and a philosophy which lends itself to filmmaking of all types.  Laughter and tears, metaphors on life and love, the rich history of America runs throughout the very idea of baseball.  All of the elements exist in the sport to make it perfect for the movies.  And the action is spread out enough to form dramatic archs and great humor at times. 

As we ramp up to Opening Day Thursday, I have worked out my five personal favorite baseball movies to break down each day this week.  Of course there have been classic films like Pride of the Yankees out there that would find their way on any number of best baseball movie lists, but not here in my personal top five.  These are films that stir my baseball youth, that invigorate my love of the game that has always been there, but has been building over the last decade.  And these pictures also happen to be, standing alone, wonderful entertainments.  Here we go.

5) Bull Durham

If you want instant credibility added to your baseball film, I suggest you hire Kevin Costner in some capacity.  At least that was the case for a decade as Costner starred in three baseball films of varying quality and seemed right at home with a bat and a glove.  Two of those films are here.  Bull Durham is a delightfully lighthearted baseball movie which manages to capture the idea of hopes and aspirations running throughout team organizations.  The film sucks us into the world of The Double-A Carolina league, and the hapless Durham Bulls, your typical tough-luck loser team that can't manage to get out of their own way.  Costner plays "Crash" Davis, a lifer in the minor leagues.  Davis is a wise old catcher trying his hardest to keep the Bulls afloat with his sharp mind and quick bat.  At the beginning of the season, Davis is brought in to mentor a young phenom, "Nuke" Laloosh, a cocky pitcher with a rocket arm and an empty head.  Of course these two hit it off poorly, and one side of the story deals with their banter and their relationship as they try and stomach each other on long bus rides and hot double headers in front of a thousand or so fans.

All the while, Bull Durham is narrated by Annie Savoy, a local lady who loves baseball and the Bulls, and each year decides to have a relationship with the best player on the team.  Susan Sarandon embodies her character better than anyone I could imagine, a perfect blend of wisdom and sexual energy.  Of course her sexual tryst would only last a summer, because she goes after the best player, and that player will more than likely be moving on after one season.  She goes after Laloosh, and meets her sexual satisfactions, but it is Crash Davis with whom she might very well belong.  They share something more than their obvious sexual attraction; they share years of Double-A ball and small-time glory, and in this they find comfort with one another.

Director Ron Shelton spent time in minor league ball, and his knowledge of the inner workings of low-rent baseball translates perfectly onto the screen.  He knows there are personalities larger than the game filling out these locker rooms and he embellishes them in brilliant smaller moments surrounding the larger romantic narrative.  There is the quirky assistant coach played by Robert Wuhl, the superstitious Latin player, the goofball religious player, all working to fill out a cast of great supporting characters.  Bull Durham runs parallel storylines of the Bull's season and the romantic triangle between Davis, Laloosh, and Annie.  It employs the "baseball as a metaphor for life" theory and it takes embellishes in wonderful performances, a grip on realism, and plenty of laughs.