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First base: Costner and love interest Kelly Preston, in For Love of the Game.Photo: Ben Glass/Universal

When Kevin Costner starred as over-the-hill minor-league catcher Crash Davis in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, he seemed to get it just right: the weariness and the regret and the prickly clubhouse jocksmanship. Crash was a romantic creation – an also-ran with the soul of a contender and an ever-ready ardor for the sport – but Costner didn’t fuzzy up the iconography. He was playing a ballplayer, not a Lancelot or a Byron. It was, I believe, Roy Blount Jr. who said that one should never forget that baseball is a game played by guys who spend a lot of their time out in the field spitting and scratching their nuts. This startling insight is what’s missing from most baseball movies – and from much baseball writing, too, which tends to wax lyrical over the Astroturf of yesteryear. It’s certainly missing from the new Costner baseball movie For Love of the Game, which seems designed to undo all the good will he built up as Crash Davis. The film comes across like the un-Bull Durham: Every woozy cliché that Shelton and Costner refrained from has been given pride of place here.

Costner is playing Billy Chapel, a twenty-year pitching veteran of the lowly Detroit Tigers who is about to have his last hurrah hurling against the pennant-contending Yankees. Note the spelling of his last name. Couldn’t the filmmakers at least have made it Chappell? Billy worships at the altar of baseball; the ballpark is his cathedral. Shortly before the big game, he’s informed by the Tigers’ departing owner (Brian Cox) that the team is to be sold to a corporate group intent on trading Billy to the Giants. For the owner, an old-fashioned type whose family held on to the team for generations, corporate muggery and big business have stunk up the sport, but Billy still thinks it’s a great game, at least when his shoulder isn’t hurting. A future Hall of Famer on the skids, he’s got a lot on his mind on this day in Yankee Stadium, not the least of which is: Should he quit or go with the trade? The Yankees fans – who are portrayed, seemingly without exception, as a gaggle of hooligans – razz Billy as he stares up at the clouds and ponders his life.

The pondering gets pretty ponderous. Director Sam Raimi and his screenwriter, Dana Stevens, adapting the novel by Michael Shaara, go in for a creaky and confusing back-and-forth flashback structure that periodically retraces, mostly through photo stills and movie clips, Billy’s ascension from tyke to Little Leaguer to major-league ace. Since many of the stills are actually of the young Costner, and since he uses his real-life parents, in at least one brief wordless flashback, to stand in for Billy’s, the self-annunciatory tone gets a bit thick. (It would feel that way even if you didn’t pick up on the personal connection.) Costner has a way of being both aw-shucks and holier-than-thou in the same pass; he canonizes his regular-guyness. For Love of the Game has the surfeit of saintly Costner close-ups we’ve come to expect from many of his films, even the ones he doesn’t direct. (It must be a contractual thing.) The close-ups here say to us, Feel his pain.

Since For Love of the Game aspires to be more than just a baseball movie, the pain on view isn’t really the kind where you stick your elbow in an ice bucket to make it feel better (though we see that too). Heartbreak is the film’s reigning emotion, and the heartbreaker is Billy’s on-and-off love interest, Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), a fashion-magazine writer and single mother of a teenage daughter (Jena Malone) who tells Billy before the Yankees game that she’s taking a job in London because she realizes he doesn’t need her the way she needs him. The filmmakers are in the business of hallowing baseball, but they also want us to know that winning doesn’t mean much if you have no one to love. This is a crummy trick to play on the audience, or at least on the audience that isn’t rustling for hankies. The whoop and holler of the sport, and even the prospect of a perfect game from Billy, get doused in weepiness.

The numerous flashback sequences between Billy and Jane replay their courtship and disaffection, creating a nimbus around this oddly solitary man figuring out the fundamentals of life away from the baseball diamond. He’s a gentleman with Jane: Not only does he refrain from scratching his nuts and spitting, but he also keeps pretty quiet about the astronomical salary he must be pulling down and the groupies he’s undoubtedly bagged. On the outs from his one true love, he stands forlornly in the rain looking up into her apartment window, like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. He gives brisk inspirational talks to his error-prone teammates, and they repay his healing by performing miracles for him in Yankee Stadium.

I can’t think of a modern-day Hollywood leading man who has more misjudged his true talents than Costner. After all these years, he’s still trying to be the next Gary Cooper. What he may not acknowledge is that, like him, Cooper began his career with some mettle and sexual energy and then mythologized himself into blandness. Costner is trying to will himself into being a classic; his idea of a movie star is someone who projects a humorless, role-model rectitude. Why else would he keep starring in movies like The Postman and Message in a Bottle and, now, For Love of the Game? It’s only when Costner’s romantic looks are salted with moxie, with humor, that he shines. The self-ennobling Costner is not someone I care about: the New Age white man of Dances With Wolves; the sanctimonious savior of the People in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves who sounded like the surfer dude of Sherwood Forest. I care about the Costner of Silverado, with his cackle and spunk; or the Crash Davis of Bull Durham romancing Susan Sarandon or throwing a tantrum on the field and kicking up dirt; or the escaped con in A Perfect World with wariness imprinted in his eyes. In Tin Cup, playing a has-been pro golfer, he had a slanginess and a spirit that kept the rue bouncy. Costner can be taken seriously when he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That almost never happens in For Love of the Game.

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