Love of the Game
Kevin Costner is an underrated actor, and the projects he picks are, almost as a rule, unfairly maligned. This is the unfortunate fate that seems to await every showbiz performer who slides from a peak of stardom. For Love of the Game is yet another Costner vehicle that arrived with bad word of mouth and a slate of damning reviews.
It is a brave attempt to marry the sports film – a form in which Costner has excelled – with a romantic drama akin to Message In a Bottle (1999). Unless serious love stories are tarted-up with middlebrow, literary pretensions (as in the movie version of The English Patient, 1997), such films tend to arouse defensive, anti-soap opera reactions in audiences and reviewers. Romantic comedy is a safer box-office bet these days.
But Costner continues to go his own way. In For Love of the Game he plays Billy Chapel, a celebrated baseball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. He is at a crossroads in his career. His public knows that he is forty years old, still suffering from a serious injury, and that, once his team is sold, he stands to be traded.
What no one except himself and his lover, Jane (Kelly Preston), knows is that his personal life is a mess. Just before a big game against the Giants, Jane leaves him for a job in England. Billy's obsessive, tight-lipped, often insensitive behaviour is too much for her to bear any longer. Waiting for her plane, Jane tries to escape the sight and sound of the television broadcast of the game.
Meanwhile, as key player in an extremely intense and impressive match, Billy remembers the rocky road of his romance with Jane. This flashback structure is sometimes a little rickety, corny, nonsensical and (at one-hundred-and-thirty-eight minutes) long winded, but there are many tremendously affecting scenes on and off the field.
Director Sam Raimi is a long way from the gleefully gory Evil Dead films that made his name in the '80s, but he grasps the most poetic elements of the sports genre with grace and élan. In an age where high-tech television coverage presumes to show us everything that happens in a game, Raimi's elegant widescreen compositions take us into the really special intimacies: Billy's smallest gestures, his ritual of speaking to himself, the signs of self-doubt and introspection. Alone on screen for much of the time, Costner is superb.
Familiar sports movie themes are recycled: the importance of teamwork and mutual trust (touchingly embodied in the character of Gus played by John C. Reilly); the creeping corporatisation of the game; the problems of squaring professional and personal life. Raimi concentrates his creative energies on the idea that Billy is (as a TV commentator suggests) "pitching against time".
Like the wonderful and little-seen Without Limits (1998), For Love of the Game weighs up, on Billy's behalf, the significance of those sublime moments of triumph on the field against the obligations, joys and difficulties of an entire lifetime. At the film's highpoint, all the elements of Billy's predicament are cut together to the limpid rhythm of Bob Dylan's melancholic "I Threw It All Away". What can Billy save, what must he lose? For the answers, you'll have to see this eternally underrated film for yourself.
© Adrian Martin April 2000