At 40, Detroit Tigers star pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is an old man in the business. His shoulder hurts. His pitching hand gets numb. And now this: The team he loves and to which he's been loyal for 20 years is about to be sold. And his girlfriend, Jane (Kelly Preston), has announced she's trading him for a job in London.
Can Billy dig deep into himself on the mound one more time before his life changes forever? In For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner returns to his favorite metaphor of sport as heroism: A player with balls striving for personal perfection is, Costner suggests, cinema's purest image of the kind of unwavering loyalty, irony-eschewing directness, physical mastery, individual initiative, and commitment to teamwork that best represents American manly (subtext: Republican?) virtues in a society where cataclysmic (subtext: Democratic?) change is never for the good. ''You're like the old guys,'' a teammate tells Billy with admiration, reminding us as this pennant-waving, old-fashioned movie does time and again that glory is still available to a man (and even a movie star) in midlife.
And if this bombastic, crowd-pleasing baseball drama rouses us how could it not, it so lovingly fetishizes every moment in one heck of a game in one heck of a season of America's national pastime well then, so much the better for Costner the movie star in midlife, a complicated player who feels he's misunderstood by the Hollywood front office. After fulminating about the awfulness of change in stuff as torturous as Waterworld (in which anarchic violence caused a man to develop vulva-like gills) and The Postman (in which anarchic violence led to really late delivery of catalogs), it's a relief to have Costner expressing his incontrovertible personal values back in the 20th century. I just wish that the bases weren't so heavily loaded in Billy Chapel's favor that we might be allowed to empathize with his human weaknesses a little more before rewarding him for his strengths. I just wish Costner trusted fans of the game to catch the spirit on our own.
Depressingly, for a plot propelled by a love story, For Love of the Game sure strikes out when it comes to Billy and Jane's romance. Theirs is a longtime relationship the pitcher reviews in his head while on the mound (when he's not muttering about batters), letting us know how much he loves her, with a faithfulness and ardor that's impressive or would be if the other half of the couple had any substance to call her own. As it is, Billy is pure and simple; Jane is flittery and neurotic. Billy says what he wants and how he feels; Jane doesn't have a clue about herself. Billy holds a baseball team together and is a hero to millions; Jane writes articles about facial scrubs, a subtly, sudsily demeaning detail. ''You don't need me. You and the ball and the diamond. You're perfect. A perfectly beautiful thing,'' Jane tells him (from a speechifying script by City of Angels' Dana Stevens) as she breaks the news that London is calling. But what's she offering?
Costner has a weakness for playing opposite mild female costars rather than actresses who can give him a run for his millions, and Kelly Preston fits the plastic mold: serviceable but wan and undistinguished, a blur against which the actor's own thin psychological contours can appear a little better drawn. But this imbalance which suggests a worry that audiences might redirect their attention for a moment does the actor, the character, and the story no good. Instead, the believable love of Billy's life would appear to be his catcher and devoted friend/nursemaid, Gus Sinski, who, as played by the wonderful John C. Reilly, has even more of an inner life than darling Billy.
For Love of the Game has been directed by Sam Raimi, a filmmaker (and baseball lover) who, from The Evil Dead through last year's low-key yet exciting thriller A Simple Plan, usually makes great, controlled use of kinetic gusto. I don't know what clubhouse confabs with star and studio brought Raimi to this temporary impasse. But in this particular game, Costner's determination to avoid change keeps this baseball movie at a low line drive when it might have knocked one into the bleachers. C