Thursday, July 19, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: FOR LOVE OF THE GAME

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who buy baseball cards for the gum.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: 1999’s For Love of the Game is the film that completed Kevin Costner’s unofficial baseball trilogy after Bull Durham and Field of Dreams from ten years earlier. Age factors into For Love of the Game quite a bit, as Costner plays a veteran starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers named Billy Chapel. Chapel is nearing 40 years old and doesn’t have the the overpowering stuff he once did. Many people want him to retire even though the current club owner (Brian Cox) states the new ownership wants to trade him to the Giants. Sounds good to me, but to Billy (and his closest friends) he might as well be getting whacked. I get that he spent his entire career with Detroit, but also...grow up, ya know? Same thing happened last season to Justin Verlander, who was traded after spending the first 12+ seasons of his career with the Tigers, and he flourished with the Houston Astros. Maybe getting out of Detroit baseball would have been fun for Chapel? We’ll never know.

With the end of a disappointing season approaching, his future in doubt and his love life in disarray (the Costner character is in a long-term on again-off again relationship with a writer played by Kelly Preston), Chapel takes the mound against the New York Yankees for one last game. He’s going to leave it all out on the field, or, as legendary announcer Vin Scully says, push the clouds away and give us one last day of summer (I like Vin Scully, but that line is barf...also, grow up, ya know?). As he pitches the next nine innings, we flashback to Costner’s rocky relationship with Preston and slowly realize (with Chapel) that he’s throwing a perfect game -- a beautiful baseball rarity. It’s an interesting structure for a movie, the cast is appealing and the film is directed by Sam Raimi coming off of the great A Simple Plan. All of the ingredients are here for a good movie and yet I don’t enjoy For Love of the Game much. The baseball elements have some juice, but the romance doesn’t work (this couple should not be together, Costner can probably find someone he’s more compatible with [but less cute] in San Francisco) and it torpedoes the entire movie.

Despite my love of all things baseball and Costner, this was my first viewing of For Love of the Game. I was always afraid of it because it came during a rough patch for my favorite actor (1997’s The Postman through 2002’s Dragonfly). Also, every time I saw the trailer I said to myself: “I don’t want to see that movie where the pitcher talks to himself on the mound like a crazy person. Pitchers cover their mouth with a glove for almost anything and I’m supposed to believe one would monologue to every hitter?” Rob, do you like For Love of the Game as a movie movie and/or a baseball movie?

P.S. The Yankees fans in it are like the love children of Camel cigarettes and Ralph Bakshi drawings. They should all be played by Burt Young.
Rob: Sweet Ralph Bakshi pull. And yes, I also appreciate the film’s commitment to portraying Yankees fans accurately. That’s what you meant, right, that all Yankees fans are unequivocally horrible? That’s what I heard. #GoPhils

I was really surprised to learn that you’d never seen For Love of the Game, and for as much as I also dislike it, I was glad to be a part of a new Costner experience for you. I want to start off with a few positives before we get into the nitty gritty: A baseball movie starring Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Brian Cox, J.K. Simmons, and Jena Malone (on whom I would later develop a huge crush in Saved! and Sucker Punch) and directed by Sam Raimi should work. There’s a degree to which, by design, it has to work. There’s a degree to which it does work. As you said, it’s an interesting structure: a veteran looking back at his career and personal life over the course of throwing one last game before being set out to pasture. It’s a great device that dramatizes one of the things I like most about the pitching position — it’s a mental game the pitcher plays with him/herself. It’s just a game of catch, as they say, and the pitcher has a lot of time alone on the mound to think. Sometimes too much.

But while this structure is interesting, it’s also one of several things about this movie that just fundamentally do not work. The movie is too long, for one, too bloated and self-involved. And yet it never takes the time to really make you care about any of the characters. It just assumes you will because the movie says so. It’s almost saying, “It’s a Kevin Costner movie about baseball. Sit down and shut up.” But without the heart or magic of, for example, Field of Dreams, it’s impossible to get a sense of where anyone really comes from or what they want.

But the real issue, again, is the structure. While it’s interesting in theory, its use here makes it nearly impossible for us to understand dramatic stakes at any given moment. For example, one of the first scenes is Costner arriving in New York, setting up a romantic evening for a mystery woman, and being disappointed when she doesn’t show up. We haven’t met this woman yet, nor do we understand what’s at stake for the two of them until we learn through flashbacks. Same with the teammate who was traded to the Yankees: We see the current, soured relationship, and then we see what soured it. On and on for each storyline. This is a perfectly valid way to tell a story, of course, but since none of these subplots has any real bearing on the game at hand, it doesn’t work at all for this one. This isn’t “float it” from Rookie of the Year, a moment that brings together a number of story threads in order to create a new and propulsive narrative element. The threads in For Love of the Game just end up feeling like filler. We can’t feel what the characters want, what they’re facing, or how exactly they can fix it. It’s all so cold, distant, and ambiguous.
Costner is on really uneven ground acting-wise, too. His understated, Marlboro Man bravado (which works in Bull Durham because we understand who Crash Davis is and what his goals are) feels tepid and even a bit obnoxious here. It feels forced, like when a band kicks into their radio hit from thirty years ago. He just looks tired.

There are so many issues. This movie breaks my heart.

Adam: I agree with you on the Costner performance. It’s low on my list of favorites. The character is just unlikable. Not Costner’s fault, really; he still draws you in because he’s a great movie star, but there’s little joy to the guy so the movie’s a slog.

I said recently on Twitter and on the podcast that I don’t like when people “Monday Morning Quarterback” a movie with their suggestions, but I’ve broken that rule a few times since then so why stop now? For Love of the Game could work if you removed all of the romantic subplot and just made it a movie where a pitcher in his final game reminisces about his career during one last start. If they did that well, I think people would say this was one of the best baseball movies ever made. Or this movie could also work if the game was the first start Chapel had coming back from that hand injury he suffers in the middle of the film. Make it like the Bo Jackson comeback story, where he needed a hip replacement and vowed to his mom that he would hit her a home run when he returned and then he did. There are ways to make this structure work! I got excited for a second near the beginning where Brian Cox is whining to Costner about how the game stinks and Costner sort of has had it at a certain point and says definitively that it doesn’t stink. The assumption from that line is he’s going to show Cox how fucking cool baseball can be by pitching a perfect game. But that’s not really what this movie is about. Everyone seems relieved at the end of the film that Chapel is finally done. It sucks and I don’t like it. Speaking of Cox, remind me to write about that IMDB trivia I read regarding For Love of the Game and Costner wanting to show his dick.*

Rob: Can’t we get through one Costner movie without a “he wanted to show his dick” story? What’s wrong with that guy?

Adam: It was probably like the scene in The Nice Guys with the kid on the bike and Gosling (aka Universal Pictures) was all “Nobody wants to see your dick, dude.”

I liked the internal monologue stuff Costner did on the mound (just not when he spoke it) because, as you said already, pitching is such a mental task where an at-bat isn’t just about the present, but also about the time you faced this asshole back in May and was setting him up with low and outside junkers just so you can surprise him with a heater in a key moment in September. I don’t understand what Sam Raimi likes about baseball based on this movie. He seems to get it enough where I wonder why he gets it the way that he gets it. Also, this is a weird Sam Raimi movie. It has almost none of his signatures. Was he trying to go against type?

Rob: This is a REALLY weird Sam Raimi movie. Maybe Costner had a bit too much control over the tone because he was trying to maintain a certain image? I could see Raimi wanting to (no pun intended) play ball with a studio at this point in his career and show he can be a team player (that pun intended), but this is just bland and, as you said, doesn’t have an interesting perspective on the game itself.
It’s also just a really lame love story. They spend the whole time bickering and apologizing to each other until they decide they’ve had enough and get together. They both seem to shrug and say, “I guess I’ll pick you.” This movie would be forty minutes shorter if they’d cut any scene in which the two of them grimace at each other. Since there’s very little tangible change in either of their characters, it’s hard to root for their story. The movie just weighs on them so much that they give in.

Adam: Yeah. They’re really unkind to one another. There’s one point where Preston won’t come to Florida to visit him and Costner says he’ll call her later and when she asks when he goes “When I don’t feel like killin’ ya.” A couple to really root for. I’m not saying it’s worth its own movie, but I think Preston’s character works best in relation to her daughter, played by Jena Malone (do they share a scene together?). Without ever saying it, you can kind of see how the two are related because they’re a little screwed up in a similar and believable, non-movie way. Each actress also has a howler line of dialogue I ironically love. Jena Malone’s is when she asks Costner “What is it with single men and V8 juice?” You know, something a teenager always says. The Kelly Preston one is when she can’t find a doctor to help Costner’s sliced hand and she yells out “Is this not America?” in the emergency room. I couldn’t believe it. Amazing.

There are a few things I like about For Love of the Game, but you go first.

Rob: I was going to mention the V8 line, too! I love when middle-aged screenwriters give teenagers those clever and precocious lines no human being, let alone teenager, would ever say. It works for Shane Black. Everyone else needs to stop it.

And now that I think of it, the only scene I remember Malone and Preston sharing was that hug they have when Costner brings her home. I’d honestly prefer to see Costner/Malone Preston/Malone scenes over Costner/Preston scenes. Malone watching Costner pitching on TV was one of the only genuine moments in the entire movie. What if Malone was their daughter and they were an estranged married couple that decides to reunite? Like Die Hard? At least then we’d understand a bit more of their tension.
Anyway. Stuff I like. John C. Reilly? J.K. Simmons’ mustache? Did I mention Jena Malone is in this movie? Wait, tell the dick story!

Adam: I’m just going to copy & paste the IMDB trivia and let it speak for itself. Needless to say, it’s a great Costner story:

It was reported that Kevin Costner was angry with Universal Pictures because they cut his full-frontal shower scene. Costner told Newsweek that the studio lacked "real courage" by insisting that the film have a more kid-friendly rating. But a studio executive told New York magazine that a test audience in Arizona gave a thumbs-down to Costner's manhood. "The audience giggled at Kevin's penis... Then, in focus groups, they said, 'Do we really need to see Kevin Costner's penis?'"

Before we wrap, here’s a few things I enjoyed about the movie:

1. They play the song “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger over a sad bastard montage and that’s totally the sad bastard song Kevin Costner would listen to. That moment made me close my eyes and do a fist pump.

2. I like when John C. Reilly tells Costner in the 9th inning: “We don’t stink right now. We’re the best team in baseball right now.” That’s something I love about baseball, which is that any team can realistically win on any given night despite a major talent disparity. Much of it has to do with circumstances where a bad team is motivated to play out of their minds.

3. I think the last inning is actually pretty good and feels like what the rest of the movie could have been if it were more minimal. The baseball action feels more realistic than in most baseball movies.

4. I like the flashback scene where Costner tells his right fielder to hold his head up high and not give anyone help making fun of him after the guy has a ball bounce off his head (Jose Canseco style) and over the fence for a home run.

5. I think one thing the movie gets right about baseball is that it’s kind of square, but that’s part of what makes baseball people love baseball. We know that every pitch is as dramatic as a good movie.

6. I like that the movie takes time (it has nothing but time) to show Costner crying in his hotel room after he gets back from the after-party activities following his perfect game. This guy has a ton of shit going on in that moment and the mixture of sad tears (the romance, the retirement) and happy tears (the perfect game) makes complete sense. Then the movie blows it because that should be the high point you go out on and not some bullshit airport gate reunion between Costner and Preston. This movie is so frustrating.
Rob: I agree with so much of that, especially the last two points. This movie gets “baseball people” and how romantic we are about the game, especially how boring and monotonous it can be. Hey, MLB: Stop trying to make baseball cool and exciting. Stop trying to speed up the pace. We like baseball slow and dull. It’s meant to be savored. Actually, wait. I just thought of my favorite moment: It’s that slow pan across all the zeros on the scoreboard. Costner calls Reilly over and asks, “Has anyone been on base yet?” in that kind of dumbfounded way. It’s really genuine and speaks to the dramatic difference between playing the game and watching it. I like that a lot. Also, I want to start a punk band called Sad Bastard Montage.

So are you Mark Ahn or Off on For Love of the Game? I have a bit more affection for it now that we’ve discussed it, but I’m still going Mark Off.

Adam: I’m still Mark Off on it, but it’s a movie I now give 1.75/4 Riskes instead of 1.5/4 Riskes. What are we reviewing next week?

Rob: I think it’s time again for us to go All Pacino, and since it’s summer, let’s bring out our big guns and talk The Godfather.

Adam: Sweet! We’re gonna make it a column you can’t refuse (gunshot).

Rob: Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. I am such a fan of Basil Poledouris' score. That is all.

  2. I don't know if this will make sense or not, but this kind of thing is the reason I love F This Movie (site and podcast) so much. I've never really liked For Love Of The Game even though I feel like I should, but it's not like I have an outlet for that nagging thought. I can't really go out with my friends and say "Great to see you guys. Can we start out tonight by discussing 1999's For Love Of The Game and why it doesn't really work?" And yet, here are Rob and Adam doing just that. So, for what it's worth, I think all of your suggestions would have vastly improved the movie and I just wanted to say thank you.

  3. As a lifelong Yankees fan, this film was so anti-Yankees (much like some of this article) that it made me sick but I expected it at the time as we were in the middle of out epic '96 - 2000 World Series run ;) That being said, I really like this movie as a baseball fan being able to separate that. It's actually one of my top five baseball films. And for the record, we're not all horrible. I smoke Marlboro 72's and like Drew Struzan drawings.

    1. The Yankees fans in the movie are the worst. I have no issues with any real life Yankees fans....maybe Mad Dog Russo but that's it.

    2. No personal offense intended, Chaybee. Just doing my job as a Philadelphian. It’s mostly jealousy.

    3. Haha! I know it, guys :) I can tolerate Mad Dog, Francesa is insufferable.

    4. Oh, Adam, and I think Hawk Harrelson is a great game caller.

    5. Hawk is pretty rough. I like him ironically a little, mostly when he tells analytics people that they are ruining baseball. The new tandem of Jason Benetti and Steve Stone is pretty terrific.

    6. Maybe it's cause I've had him only in small doses for years and years. Anyway, cheers, man. Hope you have a great weekend!

  4. This is a weird one in that I rather like this movie while also 100% agreeing with your criticisms of it. Something about it just works for me in a weird way.