Maybe I'm looking at this film through rose colored glasses. Sam Raimi is one of my favorite directors, a real talent with visual ingenuity and a penchant for silliness. With last holiday's bleak A SIMPLE PLAN, Raimi gave up his EVIL DEAD past and churned out the most satisfying dramatic thriller of last year. He is certainly growing by leaps and bounds as a storyteller, and his latest film, FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, is another surprise for those of us who are fans. A truly elegant, dashingly romantic, white-knuckled look at baseball and matters of the human heart, GAME represents what a true Hollywood soap opera should be, effective.
Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel, an aging pitcher for the Detroit Tigers heading for the mound for may be his last time ever. The team owner has sold the organization to a corporation and they have plans to trade Billy. His arm continues to fail him more every time he steps up to thrown. And to top it all off, Billy must deal with his tempestuous relationship with Jane, a woman he met by a broken down car on the side of the road five years ago and has yet to fully commit to. With all these thoughts swirling inside Billy's head, he unknowingly begins pitching a perfect game. Unable to keep his mind clear, Billy thinks back on his life during the game and considers the mistakes he has made and the people he has met.
Told mostly in flashback, LOVE OF THE GAME is first and foremost a baseball movie. While being knocked for his recent professional choices (yeah, I liked THE POSTMAN, say what you will) Kevin Costner seems to have been crowned king of the baseball flicks. Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM is pure genius, the best baseball film ever. FIELD OF DREAMS is more like GAME, both share a strong heartbeat and retaining a smart enthusiasm for the sport. Costner has been the glue that held both films together. He's always been a good actor, only reaching brilliance once (DURHAM). He has the rare charm the many actors forget to consider. While not technically proficient, Costner knows screen charisma well. GAME gives us a desperate Costner performance, one which lets the actor take his guard down for once. His Billy Chapel is a man used to success, yet unsure how to use it to his advantage. A man who can hardly imagine himself consumed by anything but baseball. It's a great performance from Costner. My only hope is that public opinion doesn't tarnish the acting for the paying crowd.
Kelly Preston has the more troublesome task of shining brighter than Costner. A working actress for sometime now, this new film feels like the first time Preston is really acting. I enjoyed her supporting work in 1998's underrated JACK FROST, and GAME finally puts her front and center. She bounces effortlessly of Costner, and the two - while skittish at first - melt into a nice chemistry that packs more emotion than I expected. The loopy John C. Reilly (BOOGIE NIGHTS) and Jena Malone (STEPMOM) are also quite pleasant in small roles.
Working with even more restraint than his SIMPLE PLAN, Raimi brings to the table his gift for camera placement and visual tenacity. The baseball scenes in GAME are very romantic, the title doesn't lie. A self-professed fanatic of baseball, Raimi's love of the game shows in each shot. With noted cinematographer John Bailey, the two create a pristine looking film. The stadium scenes are both frightening cinematic and realistic at the same time. The look of the film might not register with many people, but I couldn't help but to admire such attention to detail.
Screenwriter Dana Stevens made quite an impression with her spare and warm CITY OF ANGELS remake. What she brings to GAME is the feeling of courtship that I enjoyed in Costner's last film MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE. Costner and Preston really show the genesis of a relationship, warts and all. The structure of flashback that Stevens uses to tell the story isn't as unfortunate as it sounds. It's all a rather nice mix of familiar baseball melodrama and a hearty dose of Hollywood soap opera. Stevens proves once again that she has a wonderful ear for romantic entanglements.
Call me a sucker for the obvious, but FOR LOVE OF THE GAME really worked for me. I really was moved by the story and enjoyed all the nuances and quirks. This classy film might not have a hero with a chainsaw for a hand, a crispy scientist with a reliance on synthetic skin, or a quickdrawing Sharon Stone. What it does have is strong emotional resonance. A audience film that the mainstream will love and the arthouse will abhor. I'll take that any day.-------- 10/10