Sports Movie Week continues with day 5: baseball. I’ve already watched Moneyball this year, so I went back into the history drawer to evaluate this lesser-spotted gem.
Field of a different dream
Virgil Sweet is a roaming scout for the California Angels, and a one-time pro catcher who never made it to the Major League himself. On a drive to see some players in Idaho he stumbles across a kid named Sammy Bodeen; a kid with an arm like a cannon. Will this untested youngster be able to cut it under the pressure of the stadium lights?
People love sports for many reasons. There’s the excitement; the competitive spirit; the vicarious thrill; the gambling (like this guy); maybe just the unpredictability of it all. All sports probably see themselves as a metaphor for life itself, or at least an aspect of life, but no sport has really been able to capture that essence and represent it on a movie screen as often and as successfully as baseball. Explaining why would certainly take more time and brain power (and knowledge of baseball) than I have handy, so let’s all just take my word for it and move on to the next paragraph.
In Talent for the Game, Eddie Olmos (I can call him Eddie cos he follows me on Twitter) plays Virgil alongside his future wife Lorraine Bracco as his girlfriend Bobbie. The once and future Admiral Adama is as fantastic as ever in the role. His Virgil is a man who seems fairly happy-go-lucky but scratch the surface and there is someone who is less than thrilled with his lot in life. He’s not getting any younger; he spends most of his time driving around the country in a car almost as beat up as him; he’s almost certainly envious of the kids he brings back for their youth and their shot at something he wasn’t able to achieve for himself when he was their age, and now his job is on the line because the new team owner doesn’t think he needs scouts like Virgil anymore.
Sammy is Virgil’s last hope. If he’s a winner then Virgil’s future is set, but if he tanks then Virg is out on his ass. It would have been an easy choice to have Virgil transfer this extra pressure on to Sammy through try-outs and in the run-up to his debut but instead Virgil remains protective of the kid, calming him down when he gets nervous. It’s Olmos’ inherent decency and trustworthiness that makes all of this work.
Olmos is backed up by a quality supporting cast incuding Bracco (coming off her Goodfellas career high), Jamey Sheridan as the Angels’ GM and Virgil’s self-serving boss, and Jeff Corbett as Sammy. Terry Kinney and Thomas Ryan almost steal the show as the team’s brash new owner, Gil Lawrence, and his assistant/henchman/echo, Paul (respectively). Robert M. Young’s low-key direction and Curtis Clark’s cinematography are both a good fit with the material as well.
Where the movie doesn’t quite do the business as it should is in the story and the structure. There’s no antagonist here, and very little drama at all. Once the main plot kicks in you’re never in any doubt about exactly what’s going to happen. When it was getting started I was guessing the film would span maybe a whole season. It would show an on-his-last-legs Virgil bringing Sammy into the fold, then staying on with Sammy as his agent or manager or something, both starting out with good intentions but getting carried away by the sudden wealth and success before making peace and getting their mojo back in the pennant race. But my guess turned out to be bullshit.
The script by David Himmelstein, Thomas Michael Donnelly and Larry Ferguson takes a lot of time to set up the characters in the opening act, but unfortunately it doesn’t leave any room for a story. The difficulty to be overcome turns out to be nothing but Sammy’s nerves and inexperience, and the film ends after only one frakking game! What story there is feels pat and unearned. It’s a real shame, especially since Talent for the Game is only just an hour and a half long. The characters have already bought our interest, so why not condense acts two and three down and blow out the back another 40 minutes or so? If handled with the same finesse, the result could have been another classic baseball movie, instead of a Major League also-ran.