Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bull Durham - 1988

"Bull Durham" - 1988
Dir. by Ron Shelton - 1 hr. 48 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Hesitantly, I think "Bull Durham" is the greatest sports movie I've ever seen.  I've a lot of them, not all, but a lot, and if "Bull Durham" isn't the best, I can't think of another one that's better at the moment, and if you can, it's probably a matter of personal taste and splitting hairs.  This is a perfect storm - the right actors, a sharp script, actual insight into just about everything, and the kind of story and characters that are both down to earth and who feel like real people.  This is a film that eclipses it's genre, whichever one you want to plug it into.  It's a sports movie, a romantic comedy, heck, a straight-up comedy at times, and it's better and more meaningful than any of that would suggest.

The Durham Bulls are a low-level minor league baseball team in North Carolina, the sort of team you either start off with or end up there on your way out of baseball entirely.  Everyone other than the players, however, are there pretty much permanently, including the simmering Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who is a part-time community college English teacher, who spends the rest of her time guiding one lucky player each season down the road from young man to man.  As she puts it, she gets 142 days (the length of a season), and they get a lifetime of confidence, which seems like a bad trade, but bad trades are a part of baseball.  This decision comes down to two men; the player on his way up, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who is the living embodiment of a proverbial million dollar arm and five-cent head, and the minor-league veteran catcher who has been brought to Durham not with the idea of a future, but instead solely to break in Ebby, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner).

There are a lot of convergent stories here, far more than you'd expect to have going on in a standard sports movie.  And most impressively, each of the main characters are fully fleshed-out (even the ladies!).  There's the straight-forward sports story, of the Durham Bull's season, and of LaLoosh and Davis' respective progress towards their goals, with their unspoken futures hanging over their heads.  There's the mentor/student relationship(s), there's the personal relationships.  And then there's what the film is really about, which we'll get down to in a minute.

From any angle I tackle it, "Bull Durham" is an exceptional story.  It accomplishes two difficult things: this is a specific story set in a specific time and place.  And I don't mean that in a weird retro way, where the whole thing hinges upon knowing that nobody had cell phones back then, or none of it works.  The world of baseball is it's own universe, with it's own rules, but this isn't a story set on a grand stage.  The raggedness of the world isn't played for laughs; this is what it's like playing in the low minor leagues.  There are buses and meals that come in paper bags.  There's not enough liniment to go around.  There's no security, there's sparse crowds, and everybody sweats all the time.  There's a short moment on one of the endless bus rides that resonates, and shows why all of them are pursuing their dream, when Crash tells the story of his twenty-one days in the major leagues.  The other players are spellbound; they're technically professional baseball players, but they're all so far removed from the major leagues that they've certainly never played with anyone who's done so, and maybe haven't even really talked to anyone who has.

There are other flashier scenes and moments in "Bull Durham," but the movie is pretty much full of them, from our introduction to LaLoosh all the way to Crash showing up at Annie's near the end.  Things never lull, and some of the scenes are such unbelievably great film-making that it left me shaking my head (the peak of this was Crash's inner/outer monologue during one of his at-bats, providing not only a look inside of Crash's head and his approach to baseball, but also providing something that ESPN could never manage to broadcast, which is the best reason to make a movie).  Even something that feels like a throwaway thirty seconds early in the film, like the manager passing along the info to a struggling player that he's been released, comes back to play later on, deepening the impact of the later scene.

All of the fantasticness of the script and the setting and the action wouldn't mean a lot if the actors couldn't pull off the roles, and every single actor absolutely destroys everything in sight.  A lot of the film revolves around Susan Sarandon's character, she's written as someone who knows a lot of things and is always in control, but still needs to feel desirable.  Her's is a very complex character; she has a gift (more than one, to be certain) and knows it, and will use her knowledge to someone's great benefit, but doesn't resent it or really ask for anything in return.  And on top of all of that, she's the kind of woman that anyone would be lucky to have, in every respect.  Sarandon nails all of that.  She's the woman that you want to sleep with, she's the woman that will leave you better off than when she found you.  The script helps out a bit - rather than having her be a predatory "cougar" that's always two steps ahead of everyone, there's a scene between her and Crash where she gets furious because her love life has been affected by something that Crash has said.  Her insecurity at LaLoosh going celibate rounds out her character in a very real way.

Tim Robbins gets the broader comic character, and he's a lot of fun as the talented young doofus.  Paired with Kevin Costner's hard-ass character, they have a great comedic dynamic.  But part of what makes "Bull Durham" a great film is that this is all to a specific purpose.  The characters both grow, albeit in different directions at times, but they're at different points in their lives, and they don't stay static so that a sequel could come at a later date.  "Bull Durham" is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Yes, it's a slice of time that contains a bunch of characters headed in different directions, but it works.

Ultimately, what makes "Bull Durham" a great movie, and not just a great sports movie or a great comedy, is that it's about something more than just sports, or laughs.  This is a film dedicated to exploring what desire is, in a hundred different ways.  The biggest example is probably that of sexual desire, and this is a very steamy movie.  But it doesn't rely on peeks of flesh to get inside of your head (the idea of flesh as having or not having value is examined differently, within the context of baseball), instead these are characters that want each other because of their uniqueness and excellence.  Annie has something to offer LaLoosh, LaLoosh has outstanding talent, and yet is largely unformed as a person, and Crash is fully-formed, and excellent at what he does.  For each of the three, they desire something different out of life.  Annie has the ability to help young men along their path, and gets to feel useful and desirable.  Crash wants what he can't have; to be younger, to have been better enough at what he does to not be stuck in Durham, mentoring some kid who doesn't value what he has, to be with a woman on equal footing.  LaLoosh wants, well, he's not entirely sure yet, but for now, what's in Annie's underpants is a good start.  One of my favorite moments in the film is when LaLoosh comes into the locker room the morning after spending the night with Annie, looking like an absolute wreck.  It's a mix of competing desires, and they're all compelling and valid.  But most of all, even if some of the desires are unreasonable or impossible, they're real, and feel real, and resonate deeply.

There's a good chance that how you feel about the movie will depend on which age you're at when you watch it, and that your view of it will change over time.  I remember thinking it was super funny when I was younger, a lot of Crash's motivations were lost on me, even when his actions weren't.  Susan Sarandon, at this point and time, is one of the sexiest women I've ever seen, as much for her character as for her appearance.  And her character is someone that you'd probably react to at any point post-puberty, but the more I understand what she's got going on upstairs, the more I like her.  A good movie, a really good movie ages like that.  The complexity that's lurking underneath what seems like a simple story about two ballplayers and a world-class groupie (if you want to look at it like that) changes how you look at the story over time.  For my tastes, "Bull Durham" is as good as it gets.  It's unique, it's paced well, it's insightful and relentlessly funny and real.  And it's got baseball as your plausible cover story for you wanting to curl up with a great romance.

5 / 5 - TV (HD)

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