On the eve of pitching the best game in his life, baseball great Billy Chapel (Costner) reflects on his life, which has suddenly taken some drastic turns: not only has he been traded from his team of twenty years, but his true love (Preston) has left him for a job in England. Chapel nostalgically re-examines the priorities in his life and what he has sacrificed in order to get to where he is.
A touching movie that examines the choices people make in their lives, and the consequences they have--melodramatic at times, but mostly well-crafted.
I can't even remember the last Kevin Costner flick I enjoyed. The Postman? No, sucked. Waterworld? No, sucked. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? No, Costner demonstrated long ago that he can't swing accents. Thus, I wasn't very hopeful about a sappy baseball flick starring the Raspberry award winner for Worst Actor--shouldn't I just skip this and rent Field of Dreams instead? But then something amazing happened: I discovered For Love of the Game was a pretty darn good movie.
The movie centers around a baseball game in which Costner's character of Billy Chapel is doing the impossible: pitching a perfect game. Through a series of flashbacks that occur between pitches, we see his childhood, his career, and how he met his girlfriend Jane, played by Kelly Preston. All of this happens gradually through the span of the entire film, and we get a well-developed and well-rounded sense of who Billy Chapel really is. He's a celebrity jock, but for the most part, he's also a nice guy. And as we watch his memories of his father playing catch with him as a little boy, we easily get a sense of how deeply ingrained the game is in his mind, and how important it is to him. This is critical, because if we didn't understand what baseball meant to him, we'd have a hard time accepting the notion that he could put the sport ahead of his girlfriend.
The conflict arises when Chapel's life seems to come undone all at once, as is so often the case in the real world. He effectively loses the two most important things when a heartless businessman trades him from his team of twenty years and Jane breaks up with him. The emotional turmoil spurs him on to achieve one last desperate act of redemption, and so he goes about to pitch the game that will crown his lifelong career. Pitching a flawless game would not only put him in the baseball history books, but also be a worthy ending to his legacy.
Even if you're not a fan of baseball, you'll be glued to your seat play by play. The movie does an excellent job at conveying the difficulty and accomplishment of pitching the perfect game, and Billy Chapel is such a tangible character that you'll want to root for him until the end.
For Love of the Game also excels at portraying the fickle love affairs the public has with celebrities; and in particular, we see how baseball fans can turn on their former favorites because of a losing streak. Flashbacks of newspaper headlines show us that Chapel was a virtual prodigy in his youth, but the onslaught of years eventually cool down his game to the point where he is considered a has-been. It's a sad moment when he realizes his love of baseball has turned into a job scrutinized by the uncaring masses. The business-like nature of the sport is also exemplified by Chapel's competition with former teammates who have been traded to opposing teams in the interest of money.
Kevin Costner's performance is surprisingly believable here, and he deftly relays a sense of anguish and regret when the moment calls for it. Kelly Preston also turns in a first rate performance as a woman torn between finding her own personal fairy tale romance and the realities of dating a celebrity who sometimes puts his love of the game ahead of his love for her. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when she laments, "I knew you'd break my heart into a million pieces." Finally, John C. Reilly's supporting role of Chapel's best friend and catcher adds to the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that permeate the film.
What makes this movie stand out is its dedication to a character driven story. It's very introspective, and dwells on decisions and consequences. We don't see that much in mainstream Hollywood, where things just happen mostly for no reason in particular. Here, we're treated to characters who weigh their options and suffer through ill fated choices. The movie may be set in the context of baseball, but it's clearly a story about discovering what's really important in life, and what every one of us sacrifices for our dreams. Thoughtful, touching, well structured, and sometimes humorous, For Love of the Game comes as one of our most highly recommended films of the year.
Personally, I could have done without Costner's gratuitous locker room butt shot. No one needed to see a completely unnecessary view of a disturbingly pasty moon. Even some of the women in the audience flinched at that one, I think. I hope they remove the scene before the movie goes public, but I doubt they will. Okay, on to more substantial problems...
Despite its solid story, For Love of the Game can't help but resort to some cliches, stereotypes, and overly obvious narrative devices. For example, while Chapel is pitching and flashing back, he often talks under his breath--essentially explaining what's going on in his mind to the audience, as if we're too dense to figure it out ourselves.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the last five minutes. We won't spoil it here, but let's just say that all the pieces of the story seem to fall into place too perfectly--a quick resolution that's wrapped up too neatly. Also, it's a bit unfortunate that the romance between Chapel and Jane is largely unmoving. It's touching in parts, but it generally takes a backseat to the baseball game, which is far more emotionally charged.
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