Thursday, March 30, 2023

Getting psyched up for the baseball season with ... Cobb?!?

I can't have already run out of movies to watch at the start of the baseball season, can I?

Per tradition, I always watch a baseball movie the night before opening day, though this year, two nights before worked out better for my schedule. I've watched Major League more than once, but I need to give that a rest for a few seasons. Two years ago it was my first-ever watch of The Natural, and last year I rewatched Eight Men Out for the first time in 25 years or more. Bull Durham is a good candidate for a rewatch one of these years, because I sense I'd feel a bit more favorably toward that on a second viewing.

It would seem like I don't have too many other choices than those, though, because this year I settled for ... Cobb.

And it wasn't even a first viewing.

The reason I say "settled for" is that I don't think Ron Shelton's 1994 film is very well liked. In fact, I know it's not. What's more, it deals with journalist Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) writing a biography of the legendary ballplayer and legendary asshole Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) in the year before his death in 1961, when he was over 70. In other words, there isn't that much actual baseball in it.

But I'd always liked this film, and 2023 was the time to revisit and judge the younger version of me to see if he was crazy.

Here's what I wrote about it in my review for AllMovie, written probably sometimes in 2001:

Ron Shelton could not have painted an uglier portrait if he'd made a movie about Adolf Hitler. But with one of the most notorious personalities of the 20th century as his subject, it doesn't even feel like caricature. Cobb is a triumph of original thinking in many respects: a baseball movie with very little baseball in it; a biopic that focuses on the last year of its subject's life, sparing the viewer his "greatest hits," both literally and figuratively; and a career-best performance from a small-time actor (Robert Wuhl) who holds his own alongside Tommy Lee Jones at his blistering best. The dynamic Shelton explores between the legendary ballplayer and Al Stump, his harried biographer, is thoroughly engrossing, eliminating the need to rely on re-created old-time footage that might have served as a crutch. Several scenes perfectly capture the reckless, spiteful essence of the man, including a trip around the bases in which he spikes no less than three fielders, and one in which he drives down a mountain at 60 miles per hour in a blizzard. Counterbalancing this, however, is the gracious treatment given Cobb wherever he goes, which demonstrates the empty flattery accorded celebrities by starstruck fans who don't really understand who they are. Shelton's adaptation of Stump's book makes Cobb and his biographer more similar than either would like to admit: each exploits the other for his own self-aggrandizing purposes, even if Stump's are sanctioned under the guise of journalism and the slippery quest for "truth."

Ultimately I still stand by most of that. Where I don't stand by it, it's a matter of degree.

First off, calling this "a triumph of original thinking" seems like a stretch. The things that surprised me about the movie back then don't feel like such a surprise anymore. Also I've probably seen 300 more biopics today than I had back then, so the approach doesn't seem as fresh. Of course, you shouldn't fall into the trap of subsequent pieces of art rendering earlier ones less distinctive, but that's not what I think I mean here. I just mean I've seen more biopics so I don't think the approach Cobb took was quite so unique, even at that time.

Also, I called it a "career-best performance" by Robert Wuhl, and that may be true, but again that is just relative to his own career. Wuhl has his moments, but I actually found some of his scenes to be a bit awkward. He has a dumb bird-like look on his face a fair bit in this movie.

The ugliness of the portrait was something I got right. It was interesting to watch Cobb only a few days after hearing an interview in which the subject was talking about telling someone's story being an act of making us sympathize with them, no matter how nasty they may be. I didn't really sympathize with Cobb, though Shelton does allow a very rare flicker of his humanity to seep through. That's probably the right amount.

Still, my review back then was rather too glowing. I'd still say I like this movie, but it's more in the three-star range. That reads more like a four-star review.

The question really should be: Did it prime me for the baseball season?

I suppose it did, yes. But then again, I don't need much help. I've got my real baseball team and two different formats of fantasy league teams about to take to the field tomorrow. Mentally, I'm already there.

Bull Durham would be more the mood I'm going for in 2024 ... though after three straight years of rewatching something I'd already seen -- I rewatched, and was disappointed by, Field of Dreams in 2020 -- maybe I need to dig deep for unseen baseball gems that may have eluded me. 

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