Baseball Romance

Brian D. Johnson July 4 1988

Baseball Romance

Brian D. Johnson July 4 1988

Baseball Romance


It is the season of lazy days at the ball park—and Hollywood nights in large, dark, air-conditioned rooms. Summer is movie season, the time when the big studios launch their pennant drives for box-office glory. The game plan: find a novel way of showing audiences something familiar. The easy route is the sequel, and the clone-heavy summer lineup includes “Crocodile” Dundee II, Caddyshack II, Arthur 2 on the Rocks, Short Circuit II, Poltergeist III and Rambo III. Among both sequels and original hits, the accent is clearly on comedy. Dundee II overtook Rambo in at the box office with a deadpan jab. But among original movies, too, the accent is clearly on comedy. And the number 2 movie last week was Big, a triumph of grown-up wit transcending a silly premise. Everywhere, stars are paired up in formula farces like buddies at a day-camp swim. Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin do double duty in Big Business. Dan Aykroyd and John Candy share a doomed vacation in The Great Outdoors. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a crack at comedy as a Moscow cop in Red Heat.

But among the most recent releases, two stand out from the pack—each utterly unlike the other. One is Bull Durham, a baseball movie that puts the fun back into America’s national pastime. A curve-ball comedy with a backspin of romance, it showcases the Hollywood heat of actor Kevin Costner. Not too young, not too old and not too stupid, Costner is a sex symbol whose time has come (page 28). Fielding his advances in Bull Durham is Susan Sarandon, as a baseball moll trying to have her way with men playing a boys’ game. Together they are the hottest couple on the summer screen.

Humor: The other new movie turning heads is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an extraordinary blend of live action and animation coproduced by the two superpowers of Hollywood fantasy, Walt Disney Co. and Steven Spielberg. Costarring British actor Bob Hoskins and a cartoon rabbit, the movie is not the funniest comedy of the summer, but it is the most spectacular. Technically, it ranks among the most complex films ever made. And one of the key figures behind it is Canadian ani-

mator Richard Williams (page 30).

The major studios traditionally create comedies for the summer, aimed at a broad audience. In an attempt to reach all age groups at once, it is not surprising that the issue of maturity—or lack of it—has become a central theme of the films themselves. So far this season, no movie has struck a more universal chord than Big, starring Tom Hanks as a 12year-old trapped in an adult body. Leapfrogging the generation gap, Big provides equal-opportunity entertainment for adults, teens and children.

The success of Roger Rabbit, with its $55-million budget, also depends on wide appeal—and adult nostalgia for a cartoon childhood. Yet, despite its menagerie of animated characters and its stockpile of corny gags, the movie’s sophisticated references to screen classics

could fly over the heads of younger viewers. Still, teenagers remain a major segment of the summer movie audience. And superstar Eddie Murphy takes dead aim at the teen market in this week’s big release, Coming to America, a highcamp comedy about an African prince slumming in New York City. Meanwhile, amid all the jockeying for broad boxoffice clout, Bull Durham goes after a more specialized appeal. Funny and

sexy, it is designed for adults, even though its humor celebrates the juvenile charms of baseball’s never-never land.

As a rule, baseball movies have slumped at the box office. But Hollywood seems determined to reverse that trend. During the next year, Bull Durham will be followed by at least four other baseball movies. Mark Harmon (St. Elsewhere) will portray a downand-out ball player in Stealing Home, while Charlie Sheen will appear with Tom Berenger in Major League. Sheen is also the star of director John Sayles’s Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 World Series scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox were found guilty of fixing the outcome. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the players involved, also figures in Shoeless Joe, a movie based on Canadian writer W. P. Kinsella’s award-winning novel now being shot in Iowa. Its star: Kevin Costner.

Irreverence: In the past, Hollywood has tended to take the boys of summer too seriously. The Natural (1984), starring Robert Redford as a righteous slugger with a cosmic bat, portrayed baseball as a kind of sacrament. But Bull Durham pokes irreverent fun at the game, locating its target with the heatseeking accuracy of a good off-speed pitch. The movie takes place in the minor leagues, where the mythology of the sport is played out on a human scale. The characters and the story are fictitious, but the team is a real-life outfit called Durham Bulls, a Carolina League club co-owned by one of the movie’s producers, Thom Mount.

Sex: Although set in the present, Bull Durham has a timeless sense of whimsy, as if the characters were happily marooned in a bygone era. At the heart of the film is Annie (Sarandon), a free spirit who worships at what she calls “the Church of Baseball.” An ardent Bulls’ fan, she recruits a new lover from the team roster each spring and grooms him for success both on the field and in bed. “I never slept with a guy who didn’t have the best season of his career,” she says. As the movie’s narrator, Annie personifies the movie’s quirky humor and reveals the script’s self-conscious wit. It is a delicious role, all long legs and clever lines, and it fits the 41-year-old Sarandon like a wellworn glove.

Vying for Annie’s affection are rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and veteran catcher Crash Davis (Costner), who has been assigned to teach LaLoosh some self-control. While Davis plays hard-to-get, LaLoosh is an easy catch. Annie discovers that he makes love the way he pitches—“all over the place”—but she remains stubbornly faithful. “Despite my rejection of most Judeo-Christian ethics,” she ex-

plains, “I am, within the framework of a baseball season, monogamous.”

With its sliders and sinkers and splitfingered fastballs, baseball is a bottomless metaphor for sex. And Bull Durham milks it for all it is worth. It mocks the burlesque rituals on the mound, the bluffing and strutting, the absurd superstitions about win streaks that come and go like love affairs. As a woman playing a girl’s game, with her cool Carolina drawl, Sarandon is as seductive as Southern Comfort on ice. In Bull Durham, she gives her best performance since her portrayal of an alluring croupier in 1980’s Atlantic City. But Costner is the designated sex symbol, the quietly smouldering presence. In a movie full of literate nonsense, he keeps the story down to earth. It works because Costner is believable as a ball player and a lover.

Tease: Bull Durham is a deliberately slow exercise in comic foreplay—teased to the bottom of the ninth inning, when the romantic relief promised in the movie’s publicity pitch finally arrives. And the chemistry between Costner and Sarandon is worth the wait.

Playfully erotic, their love scene is enhanced by a long, slithering saxophone solo more explicit than anything the camera shows. With the serendipitous rhythm of cool jazz on a hot summer’s night, the movie—like baseball-takes its own sweet time.

Roger Rabbit, on the other hand, moves at a frenetic clip. Its cartoon characters share the screen with human actors, but the “Toons,” as they are called, set the pace. The Toons are a community of cartoon stars who live in an animated ghetto called Toontown and commute to Hollywood. There, they work with humans in the real world, acting in cartoons. A vast range of animated stars make cameo appearances, from Tinker Bell to Tweety-Pie. One scene features animation’s two most famous ducks: Disney’s Donald and Warner’s Daffy duelling on a pair of (real) pianos. But the star of Roger Rabbit is a newcomer, a flop-eared bunny with a lisp.

Set in 1947, the detective-story plot unfolds like an endless Hollywood injoke. Roger, a contract player at Maroon Studios, is a lovable stunt clown who acts in animated features with a Toontown child-star named Baby Herman. Roger’s troubles begin when he suspects

his wife, Jessica, of infidelity; a sultry cabaret singer (the voice of Kathleen Turner), she was photographed playing pat-a-cake with a local entrepreneur. And then Roger finds himself framed for the man’s murder. The overwrought rabbit seeks help from Eddie (Hoskins),

a dishevelled, hard-drinking private eye. Eddie is reluctant to take the case because he hates Toons. Sure, he used to have a lot of laughs in Toontown, he says, but he does not like going down there anymore—not since some Toon killed his brother with a falling piano.

With a Toon posse of sleazy weasels, a blackhearted villain named Judge Doom chases Eddie and the rabbit. Masterfully portrayed by Christopher Lloyd (the mad inventor in Back to the Future), Doom threatens to wipe out Roger and his otherwise invincible fellow Toons with a custom-blended turpentine called Dip.

Surreal: Roger Rabbit has an obvious racial subtext. The Toons coexist with humans in a finely drawn form of apartheid. Jessica sings at the Ink and Paint Club where Toons—not allowed in as patrons—are hired as waiters or performers. Admitted Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis: “We were very aware of what we were doing, although we drew the line at calling the Dip the Final Solution.”

A surreal cross between Disney’s Fantasia and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Roger Rabbit is riddled with puns and references. The story includes a

subplot involving a scheme to destroy the Los Angeles transit system. In Chinatown, the city’s water supply was at stake. “We loved Chinatown,” said Roger Rabbit screenwriter Peter Seaman. “Spielberg said, ‘Give me a reason to make this movie, give me a story.’ So we

came up with the other great L.A. conspiracy.”

Roger Rabbit’s script is not nearly as funny as it is clever. But the special effects are staggering. Midway through the movie, Eddie drives an animated

taxi through a tunnel to Toontown: suddenly the movie’s visual logic turns inside out, as a human actor richochets around the elastic walls of an animated world—instead of the other way around. In the middle of it all, Hoskins remains as steady as a gyroscope in a typhoon.

He bears down on his character with such dark, dramatic intensity that the comedy pinwheels around him as if by centrifugal force.

The movie’s blitz of images leaves the viewer more shell-shocked than tickled pink. Roger Rabbit is not the sort of heartwarming family entertainment that transcends all generations. Rated PG, it is suitable for preteens, but parents may consider it too violent for young children. Although most of the action is cartoon mayhem, a scene of bullets ripping into a nonanimated character was enough to persuade Disney executives to release it through the studio’s subsidiary, Touchstone Films, and without the reassuring Walt Disney label.

In fact, Disney executives seem nervous about how the movie will be received. They mention the hallowed initials E.T. and point out that as the biggest-grossing hit in movie history, E.T. also had a nonhuman star. Trying to top E.T!s success has become the Hollywood equivalent of looking for the next Beatles. Still, Roger Rabbit has the sort of novelty from which megahits are born.

While Roger Rabbit represents Dis-

ney’s biggest gamble, Touchstone’s Big Business is its safest summer bet. The title seems to have less to do with the movie’s theme than with the box-office activity it is designed to generate. Big Business is an idiot-proof Hollywood package, a high-concept star vehicle in

four-wheel overdrive. Billed as the two funniest actresses on the planet, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin portray two pairs of identical twins mismatched at birth by a blundering nurse.

Recycled: The story is an inelegant comedy of errors. Sadie (Midler) and Rose (Tomlin) grow up as hillbilly sisters in an Appalachian hamlet named Jupiter Hollow. Their real siblings—also named Sadie and Rose, for the sake of convenience and confusion—become executives at a New York conglomerate. The rich sisters’ scheme to sell off Jupiter Hollow’s only industry prompts a visit from their poor country kin, whom they have never met. Big Business is a fast-tempo farce overloaded with sight gags and double takes. There are two of everything, including the jokes—and the best ones are recycled several times.

Together, Midler and Tomlin are like a lopsided tag team: Buxom Bette and Sinewy Lily squaring off against themselves. Midler, as always, is pathologically funny. She has all the best lines. And she completely upstages her costar. While Tomlin labors to inject her diminutive role with Serious Comic Acting, Midler simply does what she is famous for: she mugs until it looks as if

she is going to wear out her eyelids. It is a clear victory of the pneumatic over the neurotic.

More evenly matched are John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, the two Canadian comics starring in The Great Outdoors. But their movie is a shambling mess. Written and produced by John Hughes—who has directed a string of adolescent hits including The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink—it is a formula farce about a summer vacation. But it looks as if Hughes was unable to decide on which formula to use and threw in everything available.

Escape: Candy and Aykroyd portray rival brothers-in-law staying with their families at a lakeside lodge. Aykroyd’s character is a fast-talking con man; Candy’s is a sweet and gullible homebody. Both actors have their funny moments, and Candy is especially effective. But their talents are squandered in a manic clutter of physical sketches: the bats in the cabin, the raccoons in the garbage, the bear at the window and the novice on water skis. There are also abrupt cutaways to a saccharine subplot between two teenagers that seems to belong to another movie. There is something dreadfully and mysteriously wrong with The Great Outdoors, which cost $28 million to make. It is hard to imagine where the money went: the movie looks as if it has been edited with a chain saw.

The season’s other comedy about things that go wrong in the country is Funny Farm. Starring Chevy Chase, it is a plodding, unfunny ordeal in which the tedium is relieved only by moments of gross indecency. One involves Chase unwittingly devouring a plate of sheep’s testicles; another is an unpleasant incident in which a fishhook gets stuck in a man’s neck. In a split second of deliberate nose-picking at last April’s Academy Awards, Chase generated more humor than in the entire length of Funny Farm.

With the National Lampoon tradition of summer farces showing signs of senility, comedy is coming from some odd sources. One is the concept of Soviet chic behind Red Heat. Its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, plays an expressionless Soviet goon, a robocop with an accent. Deflecting an inspired barrage of scatological humor from costar Jim Belushi, Schwarzenegger attempts to create comedy out of bad acting. The joke soon wears thin, and Red Heat turns out to be another bullet-ridden buddy movie. But its comic pose indicates a trend. Serious actors, from Hoskins to Costner, are acting funny. And Hollywood is discovering that the most effective escape from its own excess is humor.