I was very much looking forward to watching Bull Durham for this blog series as, not having seen it before, I could only go by initial impressions. The plot was intriguing – a love triangle forms between two single-A baseball players (Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins) and the team’s idiosyncratic number one fan (Susan Sarandon). The cast speaks for itself. And I just love sports films. There’s something about watching a team or a player overcome the bad odds naturally associated with being in a professional sports team that always succeeds at making me feel uplifted.
What I didn’t know is that this was written and directed by Ron Shelton. Shelton is not a household name or much of a trusted name when it comes to quality filmmaking, and the screenplay for this film is Exhibit A as to why. Shelton apparently believed that peppering the screenplay with quotes by the likes of Walt Whitman and William Blake would make it sound smart, and I must say the first couple of times Sarandon’s seducer character used them, I was almost impressed that an 80’s sports comedy would dig that deep. Unfortunately, that was in the first five minutes, and as the film continued, I started to question this tactic. It seems to me like an easy shorthand to help the audience understand the character’s aspirations and beliefs, instead of actually having us understand her through her own words and actions.
Many have praised the film’s mixture of sports comedy and raunchy sexual situations. While I do think this is a unique combination, especially for an 80’s sports comedy, I don’t think the two mix well. In fact, while the sports scenes on the baseball diamond are incredibly believable, it is the physical and emotional interactions between the characters that left me cold. It’s not for lack of trying by the actors who are truly at the top of their game. Costner gets the grizzled veteran exactly right, and lends a certain gravity to the role that reminds modern audiences why he was the go-to leading man at the time. Sarandon is as wide eyed as ever, but retains a certain subtle innocence even in her most sexually charged moments. And then there’s Robbins, who I’ve never really warmed up to on screen, successfully realizing his character’s transformation from ignorant over-talented jock to something subtly different.
And yet I simply could not connect to the story or these characters. It’s not really about baseball, but it’s also not about the sexual dynamics between men and women. It just sits there for a lot of the time, thematically speaking. And while I’m all for comfort food once in a while, I have to say that too much talent has been spent on a relatively empty piece of spectacle. C
OK, so the film was nominated for an Oscar for it’s screenplay, but again I don’t understand how a script that puts very little effort toward actually getting us to like the characters and appreciate their plights, could be considered one of the best of 1988. Shelton had another hit shortly after this film’s release with White Men Can’t Jump but then quickly descended into mediocrity after that (though the script for Bad Boys II is a highlight of his later period).
Still, even today, Bull Durham is held in relatively high regard as a must see baseball film. It was honored by the baseball Hall of Fame, got the Criterion treatment, and has gone on to garner a reputation as a classic sports movie. It may just be me, but I definitely had enough just seeing it the one time. It’s not terrible by any measure, but definitely has been overrated within the last three decades.
Next I’ll be watching the Kieslowski A Short Film About Love! See you then!
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