Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lady's choice: Play ball!

This morning at approximately 3 a.m. Los Angeles time, the Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners played the first regular-season game of the 2012 baseball season.

No, it wasn't some kind of weird publicity stunt. Well, it was a publicity stunt of sorts, but not the kind you're thinking of. See, it wasn't 3 a.m. in Japan, where the first two games of the season will be played, as they have been a handful of times over the past decade.

The night before this first game, to celebrate the ceremonial arrival of spring that this first game traditionally represents, my wife and I watched Major League.

That probably wouldn't have been her choice -- but that's why our bi-weekly Tuesday night movie series is all about alternating who gets to choose. It's called Lady's Choice Movie Night, but as I've described in the past (and will probably have to again), I serve as the "lady" in this scenario once a month. It's really not worth going into. All you have to know is that it doesn't involve me dressing up in her clothing or anything.

But I wasn't just forcing my wife to watch something that would probably hold little appeal for her, because the ground rules of this movie series allow me to. She's not a sports fan, but she's a big fan of sports movies -- a much bigger fan than I am, in fact, so in that sense I was actually kind of throwing her a bone. (For a fuller discussion of my feelings about sports movies, see here.) "It's all about the human drama," she said last night, explaining the genre's appeal to her.

Well, there's plenty of human drama in Major League -- not to mention plenty of laughs, plenty of swears and plenty of actors who are still nearly as familiar today as they were back in 1989.

But let's start with those swears. On this viewing in particular I appreciated how damn much the characters in this movie swear. They elevate profanity to an art form. That's undoubtedly accurate when you're looking inside the locker rooms of professional athletes, but that doesn't mean Major League would be made like this if it were made today. Made today, Major League would be PG-13 and might have a smattering of naughty words. But it probably would not have a single f-bomb. And in fact, as I was discussing on Facebook earlier today, nearly every classic line in the movie contains an f-bomb -- with the notable exception of Bob Uecker's famous quip "Juuuust a bit outside." Forthwith:

"Who's THIS fucking guy?"

"Nice catch. Don't ever fucking do it again."

"If you ever tank another play like you did today, I'm going to rip your nuts off and shove 'em down your fucking throat."

"I say 'fuck you' Jobu. I do it myself."

"Strike this motherfucker out."

You get the idea.

Yet what's so wonderful about this movie is that it's not the least bit mean-spirited. That's just how we've changed as a movie audience in the past 23 years. Major League probably has at least 50 f-bombs in it -- isn't it funny how I'm still saying "f-bombs" even though I just wrote out the word "fuck" five times -- yet it's incredibly light-hearted and fun. It seems hard for us to imagine that kind of balance today. Movies that relied on such profanity would seem to be showing off, or trying to emulate Quentin Tarantino. Unlike Major League, which is just plain realistic.

Okay, not entirely realistic. I could certainly quibble with parts of the movie. Like, how would Pedro Cerrano ever keep a starting job all year if word spread around the league that he couldn't hit a curveball to save his life? Or, in order to pull off his big move at the end of the movie -- spoiler alert -- Jake Taylor would have to show bunt on the brush-back pitch from The Duke that knocks him to the ground. Yet he doesn't.

These things don't matter, and you wanna know why? Because Major League also has one of the tightest scripts around. It's incredibly detail-oriented, yet the details are always there to show us more about the characters and the "inside baseball" (an appropriate use for that term) we're seeing on screen. They are never belabored, and there are numerous short scenes that tell us plenty without even any dialogue. My wife even said that watching Major League gave her ideas about how to make her own script, on which she's stalled around page 40, even tighter. It's a point A to point B to point C type of screenwriting that blows you away with both its efficiency and its unexpected depth.

Let's take Rene Russo's character, Lynn, for example. Stop and think about how many times she appears in this movie. She's in like five scenes. Five! Yet you know a ton about Lynn and her relationship with Jake, because each scene accomplishes exactly what it needs to accomplish. There's no way you get to the end of that movie and realize she may have only had ten minutes of screen time. She feels like a full-on co-star, a fully developed romantic lead. Credit that to David S. Ward, a name I don't really know, who is nonetheless both the writer and director of this wonderful movie.

I also enjoyed realizing how many stars were in this movie, and how they were truly the right stars, perfectly complementing each other in the truest sense of the word "team." You've got the ever-reliable Tom Berenger as the aging catcher with bad knees. You've got fleet-footed Wesley Snipes as the hot shot outfielder who invites himself to spring training. You've got Corbin Bernsen as the primadonna with the big paycheck who will no longer sacrifice his body. You've got Dennis Haysbert, much more famous now than he was then, as the voodoo-practicing slugger who defected from Cuba. And you've got one of the most notorious personalities of the past year, Charlie Sheen, as an ex-con with a bad attitude and a haircut that looks like he lost a fight with a weedwacker. This is to say nothing of the delightful Russo, the hilarious Uecker and James Gammon, the salty old manager, who will be sorely missed after dying in July of 2010. (Odd -- he was 70 when he died, making him only about 49 in Major League. He plays at least ten years older than that.)

Oh, and I said something about laughs. Yeah, we were laughing consistently. Both of us. And this was at least my fifth time seeing the movie.

More than anything, though, I was interested to see Major League again because the former host of the Filmspotting podcast, Matty Robinson, unabashedly touts this movie as his favorite of all time. Think about that for a second. He is (or was) the co-host of a highfalutin podcast where, for example, they spent a half-hour dissecting, analyzing and gushing about The Tree of Life. Yet this modest little baseball comedy from 1989 is his favorite movie of all time.

Last night's viewing reminded me that Mr. Robinson might not be so crazy.


Nick Prigge said...

Dig this post, man. I dig how you can find appreciation for a well-written, well-structured screenplay in something that typically gets labeled as just a broad comedy. Which I suppose it is, in a sense, but a well-written, well-structured one.

And David S. Ward also wrote & directed The Sting.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks! I later looked up Ward and indeed saw the Sting credit. However, he was only the writer -- George Roy Hill directed it.