Thursday, March 29, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: BULL DURHAM

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The first entry in our new baseball movie retrospective, just in time for Opening Day!

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob “Double Play” DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam “Hit and Run” Riske.
Rob: What with Adam and I both being baseball fans and the 2018 baseball season kicking off this week, we thought it might be fun to spend some time over the next few months talking about baseball movies. First up is 1988’s Bull Durham, written and directed by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton (Tin Cup, White Men Can’t Jump). It’s the story of Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), the minor league Durham North Carolina Bulls’ new flamethrowing pitching prospect, and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), the veteran catcher tasked with teaching the young upstart the rules of the game. Though they don’t see eye to eye on everything, both men are transfixed by the high priest of the Church of Baseball (Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy) and her homespun lessons on sex, spirituality, manhood, and the importance of following through with your swing.

Bull Durham, while certainly flawed, is one of my favorite baseball movies because it embraces how superstitious a game it is, how much of it is fueled by customs and belief. It’s equal parts raunchy and romantic, and it sports three career-best performances from Sarandon, Robbins, and Costner. Adam, what are your thoughts on Bull Durham?
Adam: This was maybe only my second time sitting down and watching Bull Durham in its entirety. I have seen stretches of it many times on cable over the years, but it’s a movie I have trouble figuring out if I enjoy and how much I enjoy it. It’s a beloved baseball film (many consider it the best baseball movie) and I should love it because it not only is about baseball but also stars my favorite actor, Kevin Costner, in a performance that elevated him even further into superstardom after his great 1987 with The Untouchables and No Way Out.

I’m avoiding your question, aren’t I? Sigh. I don’t like Bull Durham overall. It’s a movie I have a lot of problems with. I think the movie has a very good last 30 minutes, and Costner is terrific in it (he’s still in his ‘80s loose period before being a more straight arrow lead in the ‘90s), but I can do without almost everything up until Tim Robbins goes on his winning streak and Kevin Costner calls Susan Sarandon out on her bullshit. It’s much more of a romance than a baseball movie (the way fans of the movie praise it for its baseball insight I get more from Major League) and I just am not on board with the Susan Sarandon character and performance at all. Everything with her and Tim Robbins is not my tempo. It’s weird, because I think Susan Sarandon is one of the sexiest actresses ever, but not in Bull Durham. On this viewing, I kept thinking how much I don’t like her and would prefer to be involved with Millie (Jenny Robertson), her groupie apprentice. Millie just seems sweet. Annie (Sarandon) is a nightmare.
Rob: I already love this discussion because it makes total sense to me that I’d like Bull Durham and you wouldn’t. I think it’s a screenwriter’s movie, the kind of script where you can tell the first-time writer was often more concerned with clever turns of phrase than an actual narrative (I sympathize with him on that front). It’s one of those movies where each character is talking with the screenwriter’s voice rather than their own and things don’t always hang together the way they’re supposed to. It’s more brain than heart, and that I can see that getting a bit annoying at times (especially with Sarandon’s character). It actually reminds me of Chasing Amy, another one of my favorite movies, whose well-meaning but old-fashioned sexual politics and overwrought narrative voice often gets in the way of true greatness. I must just be a mark for this kind of thing. The truth is that Bull Durham is more a series of great scenes than a great movie. I love Sarandon’s insistence that Millie wasn’t “lured” into the locker room for sex, that a woman is far too powerful for that. I love Crash’s belief that strikeouts are fascist and that ground balls are democratic. I love the meeting at the mound where the Bulls debate what to get Millie for her wedding shower and how to find a live chicken to get the curse off of Jose’s (Rick Marzan) glove (“We’re dealing with a lot of shit”). It’s frankly insane that a story wonk like me would give something as choppy and incomplete as Bull Durham a pass, but I do. That stuff works for me and carries the rest across the finish line. Was there anything you DID like?

Adam: Oh, c’mon now...I said some stuff I liked. You hit the nail on the head that the movie stops cold for big screenwriter flourishes, and sometimes they’re funny (the wedding shower gift meeting on the mound, how to handle interviews in the majors) but other times it’s obnoxious to me (Costner’s monologue about what he believes in with love and baseball). I don’t want to shit on a movie you like, though, so I’m going to sidestep a bit because I think I made my point of what I don’t like about Bull Durham already. The film has some very good observations about baseball here and there (e.g. even though Crash is in his early thirties, he’s basically a senior citizen in minor league lifespan) and Costner is such a charming S.O.B. in this movie that it remains watchable. I like Crash Davis so much that I want the whole movie to be him as the focus and it doesn’t really pivot to being Crash-heavy until Robbins is called up to the majors (for the Braves, if the film is following the Durham Bulls affiliate history). I’m a Ron Shelton fan and I definitely think Bull Durham is the case of a guy who has had this film in his brain and heart for so long that he pours everything onto the page and screen. It just isn’t for me, oddly enough. I much prefer his next sports movie, White Men Can’t Jump, which is one of my favorite comedies of all time and I think solves the problems I had with his female lead in Bull Durham. Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump feels similar but more developed, to me at least.

This is going to be an interesting series for me as we go through a bunch of baseball films because I honestly have no idea what my favorites are. Every time I go back to one, I seem to not be as hot on it as I once was.
Rob: I like that, though. I think it’s great that our perspectives change as we grow. Anyway, I totally agree with everything you’re saying, especially that the movie has a focus problem near the end. The Crash-Annie stuff just doesn’t ever feel right, and I found myself scratching my head during their extended love scene. Is this what the movie thinks it’s building to? The real romance is between Crash and Nuke! In fact, Bull Durham is a little like Robbins’ character: Tons of potential, but, as you said, a little too eager to leave every single thing on the field rather than thinking through a more cohesive and effective approach. I just love that Bull Durham worships baseball, its players, and its culture the same way I do. It’s so much about the game as a philosophy of life.I love its reverence for “The Show.” I love the way the other players sit up straighter when Crash says those two words in that order. Romance isn’t a proper substitute for drama, I know, but I can’t help myself. I’m not usually this sentimental!

Before we wrap up: Are we Mark Ahn or Off on Robert Wuhl as a baseball coach? I feel like this is the role he was born to play, especially after we just suffered through him as Knox in Batman.

Adam: To be clear, I’m not saying you or anyone else is wrong for liking (or loving) Bull Durham or have to apologize/make excuses for it. I’m definitely in the minority on this one. Sometimes I see comments from people about a movie getting a Riske seal of approval, and that’s flattering but meaningless as long as you have your own opinion or take. I honestly feel gross for not liking Bull Durham, like a big old wet blanket. Oh well. I like Field of least, I think I do. We’ll get to that one eventually.

Robert Wuhl has never been better than in Bull Durham. He’s also in Cobb, Ron Shelton’s biopic about Hall of Famer/prick Ty Cobb. Shelton-Wuhl seem to get along. Glad he wasn’t cast in White Men Can’t Jump, though. I don’t think the world would have been ready for those Wuhl-Perez love scenes. Too hot, ya know? Speaking of too hot, what was with Sarandon and all her dumb candles? Her house is going to catch on fire. Her house looks like an estate sale more than a place a woman in her forties in 1988 would live in. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I’m done. Mark Off for me on Bull Durham. What do you want to review next week?

Rob: She’s like an old-timey Southern belle with nothing to do but bang baseball players. I like when Crash is like, “Do you have a JOB!? What do you even DO?” Anyway, it’s a rare split decision here at Reserved Seating, as I am decidedly Mark Ahn for Bull Durham.

Next week, we’ll go All Pacino with Sidney Lumet’s ‘70s crime classic, Serpico. Until next time…

Adam: These box seats are reserved.


  1. Thank you Adam for being honest about this one. I wondered what was wrong with me when I didn't like Bull Durham all that much. With you on my side I feel like less of a weirdo (more of a weirdo?).

    1. You're welcome. Makes no sense to lie to go along with the consensus especially for a movie that's 30 years old. It's the damnedest thing - Costner + Baseball = I should love it.

  2. You're all wrong, the movie is perfect.

    I'mm kidding of course, while i thinks the flaws are minimal, and don't agree with you on what's wrong with it, i can't blame you for not liking it. Sometimes we just get stuck on something and we can't let go

    I do think it's a near perfect movie that i enjoy watching at least once a year. But that's just me

  3. Great review, guys. To me, a diehard baseball fan that is sitting here counting the mere seconds until my team takes the field for opening day (under 2000 seconds now... Woo!), BULL DURHAM is the best baseball movie.

    I definitely see your points about the big monologue scenes, and although I agree in part that this is Ron Shelton swinging for the fences with BIG moments in his script, the dialogue is also well in line with the way we've seen baseball portrayed over the years by sportswriters and, more importantly, cultural writers who dabble in talking about baseball. Through the years, baseball has always been spoken of as our "national pastime," which has led many a scribe to overdo their prose and go overboard with comparisons and utter reverence. Look at the work of George Will and Ken Burns when discussing the sport, and you'd think that mentioning a ground ball to third should be tackled the same way as you discuss a sonnet from Shakespeare. As much as Shelton may be showing off, I think he's also needling writers who have gone way over the top in years past. Shelton played the game at this level; I'm sure he knows how silly the words sound at times.

    Also, coming from someone who has spent way too many a night at minor league stadiums up and down the East Coast, from brand new 10,000 seat ballparks with all the modern accompaniments to high school fields that double as home parks for the lowest Class-A teams, Shelton gets the feel right. The film feels lived in right from the start. 18 year old rookies are flirting with local girls in the front row. Rain delays and rainouts become a new kind of fun zone (and I'm certain that Shelton gets the idea of causing a rainout from real events). And, if you went to a minor league game in the 1980's (or 70's, or 90's)... you either saw Max Patkin doing his clown act on the field, or your team had him scheduled to perform at some point during the season.

    Finally, I bring you the story of Jake Fox. He's a 35 year old catcher-infielder who's been banging around the minor leagues since 2003. He's played for team after team, and he's had his chance in the spotlight, appearing in 193 major league games between 2007 and 2011. I saw him play four times in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2016, when he hit 23 home runs and 74 runs batted in, a damn fine season for a player at the age of 33. However, the team had a younger catcher that they needed to promote, so at the end of the season, Fox was let go. He was still putting on the uniform last year in Mexico, and I'm sure he is currently trying to hook onto a team for this season, because that's who he is.

    Crash Davis lives, people.

    Keep up the great writing, guys... and BULL DURHAM is still the one to beat.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I agree with you about "the Ken Burns Effect" (not that one; a different one) in terms of romanticizing baseball. That's the part that Bull Durham gets right over everything else, and for that, it's worthwhile.

    2. Bob-Loved your comment. Thanks!

    3. Bob Costas once put it that, when it comes to baseball fans, there are "Field of Dreams"-type fans and there are "Bull Durham"-type fans (he considered himself in the "Bull Durham" category).

    4. That's an interesting quote, and i think i have to agree with it.

      I'm not a huge fan of Field Of Dreams. I don't dislike it, i don't think it's a bad movie, but i don't care about it. Not enough baseball in it i think

    5. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

      Shelton did a fantastic job of matching tone and language with all of his first three sports films. BULL DURHAM meets the poetry and romanticism that people who had read baseball works over the years expected.

      He then understood how important boasting and trash talk were to the game of basketball, especially to the side courts of amateur/pickup games. He knew that being able to talk a good game was as, if not more, important than having good game, so every character tries to outdo the other in a battle of words. Even the loan shark Stucci brothers find it more important to SAY they've caused damage to Billy Hoyle than actually cause the damage. The talk of their legend will far outlive the injuries they cause to any one mark.

      Finally, TIN CUP understands the plight of every weekend golfer and applies it to the pro tour. Any man or woman who has gone out on the course has had that "grip it or rip it" moment-- you've tried everything you've been taught in every golf lesson you've been given, and you're still stuck in a sand wedge. Kevin Costner's character, and Shelton's script, know all too well that sometimes you need to just turn off your brain, ignore the lessons, and just hit the ball in life. Playing it safe and as instructed doesn't always pay off. Every amateur golfer feels that when playing, and the film plays to that emotion all too well.

    6. Oops, forgot to add the title WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP to the second paragraph, but I figure everyone knew of what I was referring.

  4. Well, look at that, Criterion just announced it for July