Hate mail poured in when I panned Kevin Costner’s baseball weepie Field of Dreams. His astringent turn in Bull Durham is more my style. So I’m calling a foul on For Love of the Game, from a posthumously published novel by Civil War scholar Michael Shaara that screenwriter Dana Stevens drowns in soap bubbles.
Costner plays Billy Chapel, a star Detroit Tigers pitcher for nineteen years. Now the owner, Mr. Wheeler (Brian Cox), is selling the team to a corporation that wants to trade Billy. Wheeler urges him to retire, arguing that today’s baseball stinks. “Baseball doesn’t stink,” Billy tells his boss. “It’s a great game.”
Costner delivers that sappy line with real sincerity, which extends to his scenes with the excellent John C. Reilly as Gus, Billy’s longtime catcher. Out of the ballpark, the story derails as Billy hooks up with Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), a journalist raising a teenager, Heather (Jena Malone), whom she had at sixteen. “Mom never had time for a love story,” Heather tells Billy, who tries to supply one. But after five years of neglect, Jane splits. And – thank you, Hollywood – she walks on the same day Billy steps on the mound for the last time and takes on the Yankees. As he strains for a perfect game, Billy’s life with Jane flashes before him.
That’s all, folks: a giant cornball flashback. Not a frame reflects the distinctively edgy touch that director Sam Raimi brought to films as diverse as The Evil Dead and A Simple Plan. Was Costner being a buttinsky? Is Hollywood in California? Game plays like an unholy union of The Natural and The Prince of Tides. Too bad. The baseball footage, superbly shot at Yankee Stadium by cinematographer John Bailey (Living Out Loud), sets the scene for a fastball that never comes. There’s no heat in watching Billy pine and Jane whine. But guess what? Build a movie as a shrine to baseball and they will come. Suckers! Now you can send in that hate mail.