Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Greatest Show on Dirt: Bull Durham

With the 2010 baseball season well underway, my near constantly movie-occupied thoughts turn to films depicting our great nation's pastime. The problem is, however, as many classics of the baseball subgenre as there are out there, most succumb to the trappings of sports movies in general: probably 90% of all sports movies are inspirational schmaltz about worthy underdogs who overcome the odds to beat their arrogant rivals in the Big Game and learn the values of teamwork and perseverance. These are all well and good, you probably wouldn't get such recognizable cliches if they did not work on some level.

But my dear Charge Shooters!!!, if you are in need of a movie to watch this spring/summer/early autumn dealing with the wonders of baseball, skip your Fields of Dreams, your Naturals, your Major Leagues (well okay, you don't need to skip the first two, but avoid Major League like the Plague) and sit yourself down for a viewing of 1988's great Bull Durham.

I'm writing this post specifically because not enough people have seen this movie. I know its a well-regarded, even treasured classic but that hasn't prevented many from my generation from passing it over. In the past month or so, as Opening Day came and went, inevitably (and usually after a few Grain Belts) I ask my friends the question "Hey, have you guys ever seen Bull Durham?" and the response is most often "For the last time Boivin, no. You ask us this every year and it's starting to get annoying." However, I'll sometimes get one "Yes" out of this interrogation, and that affirmative is always a resounding one.

You see, Bull Durham is much more than the sum of its parts. On paper, there probably isn't a movie that could sound less appealing; it has nearly everything going against it.

1. It's a sports movie.

2. It's a romantic comedy.

3. It stars Kevin Costner.

As I mentioned before, sports movies are far and away some of the most predictable and feel-goody pictures out there. They are probably only beaten in this endeavor by that most reviled of genres, the bane of every boyfriend, the romantic comedy. Throw in legendary Hollywood underachiever Kevin Costner and it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But in a bizarre instance of movie cliches combining to create some sort of meta-cliche, it's just crazy enough to work.

Bull Durham follows the careers of two minor league ball players, salty veteran catcher Crash Davis (Costner) and hot-headed pitching prospect Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Nuke has been drafted by the Durham Bulls' major league affiliate as the Next Big Thing and is sent to the "Bus Leagues" team to get him ready for "The Show". Crash is brought on to confer his wisdom on the youngster, which of course leads to hilarious comic situations because Crash is old and bitter and Nuke is young and arrogant. All the while the two duel for the affections of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a groupie (but you know a groupie in the way that Kate Hudson was a groupie in Almost Famous, she's basically a superfan who likes to have sex with ball players, and who could judge her for that?) who chooses one Durham player every season to school in the ways of love, baseball, and love of baseball.

The movie succeeds because it avoids the trappings of its general with a degree of proficiency that boggles the mind. In fact, it is so good at willfully ignoring the conventions of sports romantic comedies that it becomes the best one ever. Its view of baseball is so unsentimental that it brings a tear to one's eye; its lack of sentiment becomes sentimental. Just check out this NSFW clip and ask yourself if this is the stuff of the official party mythology of America's pastime.

As much as the word "cocksucker" isn't celebrated up there with peanuts and Cracker Jack, we all know it's something we love about baseball.

And above all the thing I love the most about Bull Durham is that its a movie about baseball, by baseball (director Ron Shelton is a former minor leaguer himself), for baseball. Its a film that's as much about the love of a woman as it is about the love of a game. It's sort of like the sports fan's High Fidelity. Exhibit A: this rant from Crash about what he believes in.

When I first watched Bull Durham all those years ago, even with all the accolades (98% on Rotten Tomatoes!) I was seriously afraid that I was going to be subjected to two hours of everything a film buff hates about the modern cinema, which is to say sports movies and romantic comedies. What I got instead was a new favorite movie and a lifetime pass for Kevin Costner. The man can do whatever he wants for all I care.

Bull Durham is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking it up. If just one of you puts this at the top of your Netflix queue this baseball season, I will have done my job.