Dir. by David S. Ward - 1 hr. 47 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
A rag-tag bunch of misfits making a run at fleeting glory is a staple of sports movies. "Major League" did it about as well as any movie has. Or, at least as funny as any other movie has. For all the things that the 1980s did wrong, one thing that it did very, very well was baseball movies. More specifically, the late-80s saw four well above-average baseball films: 1988's "Bull Durham" and "8 Men Out," and 1989's "Major League" and "Field of Dreams." "Major League" is possibly the most formulaic of the batch, but comedy isn't about reinventing the wheel most of the time.
In this film, the wheel looks like this: a Vegas showgirl inherits ownership of the long-suffering Cleveland Indians, and assembles a team of marginal talent in order to drive attendance down to the point where she can legally move the team to Miami. The manager is a thirty-year minor-league manager, the veterans are either disinterested or broken down, and the rookies are eccentric (but also too dumb to know not to try). So there it is, your basic batch of misfits trying to show that they belong. There's also a good romance sub-plot between the Indians' catcher, Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), and the girl that he let get away in his wilder years, Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). A very underrated aspect of "Major League" is that each of the main characters has appropriate age-related motivations. Jake's aware at how lucky he is to have one more chance, and when he stumbles across his ex at a restaurant, it's like a gift. The younger players are concerned about establishing themselves, the older ones about hanging on. It makes for a good blend of stories.
Of course, a large component to the success of any comedy is the individual performances. And when you look at the cast here, it's no surprise that the performances carry the film. It's got a couple of early leading roles for Charlie Sheen (as ex-California Penal Leaguer Rick Vaughn), Wesley Snipes (as showboating Willie Mays Hayes), and Rene Russo (Jake Taylor's love interest, Lynn Wells). It's got a couple of veteran actors in James Gammon (gruff manager Lou Brown) and Chelcie Ross (junkballer Eddie Harris), and a bonafide TV star in Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn). There's even a decent smaller role for Dennis Haysbert, who you might know as the President from "24" or from a series of insurance commercials. And if you've ever wanted to watch the President from "24" lifting weights while chomping on a cigar and wearing nothing but a jock strap, you're in luck here.
And that brings me to a very important point: this is a rough-around-the-edges crew here. They don't necessarily get along, they uniformly swear frequently, are often in a state of semi-undress. It's a batch of men who drink, fight, and screw their way through life. It's almost mind-boggling to imagine any of the major league sports organizations lending their logos and trademarks to such a foul-mouthed film currently; there's not much here that you'd describe as "family-friendly." But it's that shagginess that makes "Major League" an interesting, funny film. It's a throwback to another era, one where every player didn't look like they stepped out of an issue of "Men's Health," one where media training wasn't even a consideration, and a time where every misstep wasn't online in a matter of seconds. There's a certain joy in watching these characters just exist without the sort of meta-awareness that can drain the spontaneity out of anything sports-related.
Of course, none of that would matter if "Major League" wasn't funny. But it is funny, very funny. Out of the four films mentioned earlier, I think that only "Bull Durham" is a better all-around film. When a comedy holds up more than twenty years later, it's not an accident. This is a good movie, and it's fun going back and seeing some talented young actors before their careers had acquired baggage. And aside from 1992's "A League of Their Own," there wasn't another really good baseball movie after this until 2011's "Moneyball." Being on the edge of a drought isn't the film's fault, but it is a long time to wait for another good baseball movie.
3.5 / 5 - DVD