There’s a certain satisfaction to watching a well-made genre piece, even if the genre—the Kevin Costner sports/romance picture, for example—is basically appalling. For Love of the Game, former gore-master Sam Raimi’s variation on the Bull Durham/Tin Cup model, is so lively and good-natured that at first it seems destined to rival the modestly offbeat yet eminently crowd-pleasing Jerry Maguire. But rather than interestingly twist the form, the director dons it like a straitjacket. Sympathetic viewers hoping for something just a little bit different will run out of patience well before Raimi runs out of movie.
Adapted by Dana Stevens from Michael Shaara’s posthumously published novel, For Love of the Game is structured primarily as a series of flashbacks summoned while 40-year-old Detroit Tigers legend Billy Chapel (Costner) pitches the final game of a losing season against the New York Yankees. Faced with a crucial decision, Chapel sees his whole life flash before his eyes. Fortunately for the film’s running time, his life seems to consist almost entirely of his on-and-off romance with fashion-mag writer Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire’s bad girl). Billy’s only other significant relationship, apparently, is with his long-dead dad, who appears occasionally in black and white to remind him of some baseball fundamental. Well, there’s also catcher Gus Sinksi (John C. Reilly), but he’s such a sad-sack sidekick that when the movie gives him a big play it seems like charity.
Billy and Jane meet when he helps fix her car, which has stalled on a New York freeway. Jane is guarded but easily disarmed. Billy invites her to a game and dinner, and then they rush to bed together. Since he’s always on the road, they agree not to get serious—but soon they do. Complications include Jane’s teenage daughter, Heather (Jena Malone), whose existence Jane hides for a time, and Billy’s serious injury; while moodily recuperating from the latter, the pitcher drives Jane away. A turning point in their relationship arrives, of course, the same day as a key decision on Billy’s career—and a chance to Prove Something in that final game.
Costner is as appealing as he usually is in his nonapocalyptic mode, and Preston does her best with a bland role. There’s actually very little to either Billy’s or Jane’s character, so Raimi overcompensates with cues and commentary so obtrusive that it’s as if someone else is watching the movie for you. Electric-guitar solos announce the moments at which Billy goes into “the zone” of full pitcherly concentration, and classic-rock and country songs underscore every romantic development: The use of such tunes as “Reeling in the Years,” “I Threw It All Away” and “Loving You Made Me a Better Man” is so brazen that it’s almost Brechtian. And, while the copious tears of all the principal cast members escort viewers to the proper emotions, professional analysis (from play-by-play announcers and Billy himself) and its amateur counterpart (from Yankee fans in an airport bar) flag the significance of every infield throw.
The director has some fun in the opening scenes—parodying The Right Stuff, for example, when the Tigers arrive at the airport—and handles the flashbacks and flash-forwards skillfully. But the movie ultimately succumbs to its own lack of faith in the audience’s ability to follow a story that is, after all, both elementary and archetypal. Billy wins a moral victory, but in the contest between Costner’s aw-shucks demeanor and Raimi’s in-your-face manipulation, the latter is crushingly triumphant.
Hollywood generally follows the rule that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion—at least not real politics or religion. Taking on nonexistent or long-settled issues is another matter, however. Stigmata’s depiction of ruthless Vatican internal politics will surely offend some Catholics, yet the film’s scenario turns on a marginal crisis the church actually sidestepped some 40 years ago, when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered among the documents known as the Gnostic Gospels.
Sounds heavy, but Stigmata is anything but. Directed by TV-commercial and music-video veteran Rupert Wainwright, the movie plays like The Gospel According to MTV, complete with a score composed by Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan and Elia Cmiral. After a prologue set in Brazil that introduces Vatican investigator (and priestly stud) Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), the film really begins with a Seven-ish title sequence set to a thumping remix of Chumbawamba’s “Mary, Mary.” Wainwright continues to alternate between earnest theology and rock-video spectacle, but his commitment is to the latter.
Stigmata has its Exorcist moments, but this time the possessed is a hedonistic—and atheistic—Pittsburgh hairdresser, Frankie Paige (a blank Patricia Arquette). And the possessor is not the devil but—well, someone more sympathetic, even if his spirit does put Frankie through heck. After a Catholic talisman casually enters her life, Frankie becomes a stigmatic: a person who mystically suffers the wounds of the crucified Christ. The injuries arrive in wild-eyed montages—shaky camera, quick cuts, hot whites, deeply saturated blacks, and blood reds—that owe more to Duran Duran than to the New Testament. These visually luxurious freakouts are Stigmata’s essence; the rest of the film is perfunctory at best.
Frankie’s blood-soaked meltdowns lead Kiernan in a direction that his superior, Cardinal Daniel Houseman (a one-dimensional Jonathan Pryce), doesn’t want him to go: toward discovering the anti-hierarchal message of an ancient manuscript modeled on the Gospel of Thomas. (This document’s claim that “the kingdom of God is inside you” is bad news for a church that’s big on ecclesiastical authority and worldly infrastructure.) Although Stigmata is merely the second movie of the last two years to turn on a contemporary character babbling in the mostly dead Biblical language of Aramaic—the first was Fallen—the result is pretty stale. Despite all its apocalyptic signifiers, the movie’s final showdown is more Dallas than Paradise Lost. Perhaps that’s because the film has neither conviction nor verisimilitude.
The Brazilian scenes look like Mexico (they are), and most of the Pittsburgh scenes are generic gritty-city, complete with a New York-style subway. As for theological revisionism, there’s a lot more passion to The 13th Warrior’s playful jab at feminist archaeology. (Slapping Marija Gimbutas with a Viking broadsword, that movie depicts goddess-worshipping aboriginals not as peaceful, pastoral, and enlightened but as cannibal berserkers.) Still, Stigmata does contain one scene that suggests scripters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage believe in divine intervention: When Frankie is brought to the hospital suffering impossible nail and whip wounds, a doctor promises to do “whatever we can” without ever asking for proof of health insurance. Now that’s a miracle.
Sandusky, Ohio, high school students Eric and Maggie are best friends. They snuggle in bed, entertain each other while wearing their PJs, and change clothes in front of each other, but have never had sex. Eric thinks he may be gay. Well, gosh.
Producer-director David Moreton and producer-writer Todd Stephens’ Edge of Seventeen is the latest gay-teen coming-out story, and it’s a lot like the other ones. Based on Stephens’ own high school years, the film is set in the mid-’80s, which the synth-pop score never lets you forget. Eurythmics, Toni Basil, Bronski Beat, Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons, Yaz, Re-Flex—I won’t go on, but the movie does.
Eric (Chris Stafford) is sexually initiated by Rod (Anderson Gabrych), a college student he meets at his summer job. After Rod goes back to school, Eric pines for him, but he soon learns that other gay men have no time for such mushy stuff. That’s why his most important relationships are with Maggie (Tina Holmes), lesbian gay-bar manager Angie (Lea DeLaria), and his mother (Stephanie McVay). All offer the empathy Eric craves, although Mom isn’t entirely keen on her oldest son’s being gay, and Maggie’s a little peeved after Eric goes to bed with her in a futile attempt at getting straight.
At times, Edge of Seventeen suggests a low-budget, Rust Belt Velvet Goldmine. Eric becomes quite the flashy dresser and has a defining moment when he buys an album (Bronski Beat, not Brian Slade). Moreton and Stephens, however, can’t begin to render the sort of detailed demimonde that characterizes Todd Haynes’ films. Instead, the movie remains so anchored in Stephens’ own experience that it rarely seems more than anecdotal. Despite the timelessness of Eric’s fundamental plight, the logical response to Stephens’ memoir might be: I guess you had to be there. CP