By Rob Blackwelder
It's hard not to admire Kevin Costner for his stanch dedication to making old-fashioned movies that defy our acidic modern world.
Unapologetically sentimental, he insists through films like "Field of Dreams," "The Postman," "Message in a Bottle" and now "For Love of the Game," that melodrama is not outdated, and the man has an aptitude for jerking tears from even the most reluctant ducts.
Sometimes he tries too hard, and frequently he tries too long (it's been 10 years since he made a movie under two hours), but chick flick or cautionary futurist yarn, he almost always succeeds in taking hold of the viewer's heart, even as some of us wince at his methods.
"For Love of the Game" is no exception. Costner's third baseball- as- an- emotional- metaphor movie (preceded by "Field" and "Bull Durham"), its almost wall-to-wall, unabashed sentimental machination, but it's also maddeningly absorbing.
Within 20 minutes, cynical little me was all choked up in this smartly structured story of an aging star pitcher re-evaluating his life during his last game in the pros.
The picture features Costner as Billy Chapel, the retiring heart of the Detroit Tigers, who spends his final afternoon on the mound throwing a stirring no-hitter while reflecting on his legendary career and his recently-soured relationship with the love of his life, an adorable but emotionally hesitant magazine writer named Jane (Kelly Preston, "Jerry Maguire").
The game sets the stage for a series of flashbacks that take us through the five years of their sometimes rocky romance.
On their first date he makes her melt by asking, "How do you like to be kissed?" But the next morning, and for some time thereafter, she pulls back, determined not to commit herself to a man who may see her as some glomming baseball groupie.
Several soft-focus, romantic- stroll- in- the- park musical montages later, he finally wins her trust when she springs on him that she has a teenage daughter who has run away. He finds the girl (Jena Malone, "Stepmom"), and brings her home just in time for some more musical montages, this time of the happy-new-family variety (decorating Christmas trees, etc.).
But for every sappy montage sequence, "For Love of the Game" counters itself with honest and simple character scenes that bring out the souls of this couple and bond them to the audience. There are no two-dimensional personalities here, and we become even more invested in them when a possibly career-ending injury unexpectedly puts their relationship in a tailspin.
Directed by Sam Raimi -- who until last year's "A Simple Plan" was known mostly for producing "Xena: Warrior Princess" and directing camp horror neo-classics like the "Evil Dead" series -- "For Love of the Game" is engrossing, but it's also uneven, self-indulgent, and overly insistent about its romantic mysticism. Sometimes it slows to a crawl that only a rousing play in the framework baseball game can remedy.
Luckily there are plenty of those. Each time "Game" starts to derail, Raimi throws you back in the diamond and makes you want to jump on your seat and cheer for the hero as he overcomes emotional baggage, exhaustion and a numbing arm to throw one more scorcher past a bewildered New York Yankee slugger.
Raimi has a wonderful grasp of the sport and effectively takes the audience inside Billy Chapel's head as he zeros in on ending his career with a bang, then picking up the pieces of his life and winning Jane's heart back.
This picture is nothing if not predictable, even as it tries to hold elements in suspense, like the outcome of the game and Chapel's final decision on his retirement. Then, of course, there's Jane, at the airport about to depart to London forever. While awaiting her flight, she watches the game from a bar in the international terminal, surrounded by Yankee fans and barely holding back her tears. Will she get on the plane or will there be an romantic watershed reunion? What do you think?
Even so, Raimi and Costner have the audience on puppet strings. I may complain about the shameless heartstrings manipulation, the foredrawn conclusions, the Vaseline on the lens in romantic moments and above all about the 137 minute length (no studio should ever give Costner final cut). But the fact is, the spirit of this movie got to me and I'd gladly see it again.
Run time: 137 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th September 1999
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Beacon Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 46%
Fresh: 43 Rotten: 50
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Sam Raimi
Also starring: John C Reilly
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